The Scaffolded Research Paper


This post is part of the 2016 Writing about Art series on AHTR Weekly.


One of the staples of any upper-level art history course is the research paper. These papers can range from deep dives into one work of art from a local collection to thematic explorations that traverse various styles and media. When done well, these assignments can be a true intellectual pleasure. They afford the opportunity for students to explore individual topics of interest and demonstrate competence with course concepts and theories. When done poorly, the research paper can feel like a chore, a last-minute hodgepodge of mediocre sources that students hate to write almost as much as we hate to read. Nevertheless, to my feeling (and to many institutional requirements), scrapping these papers is simply not an option.

We can, however, take steps to increase the incidence of pleasurable and rewarding research papers and decrease the dreaded end-of-term chores. One strategy I have found to be particularly effective is what is now commonly called “scaffolding.” While this term seems on the surface to be one more meaningless buzzword in a long list of corporate analogies seeping into higher education, it is actually an established theory in educational psychology defined as “a reciprocal feedback process…with the goal of providing the kind of conceptual support that enables the learner, over time, to be able to work with the task, content or idea independently.” When employed correctly in a final research project, scaffolding can build papers upon solid foundations that soar to previously unimagined heights.

While one of the best means of producing strong research papers is a clear and thoughtful prompt (a topic covered in many useful AHTR posts already), in the below I outline how best to scaffold your assignment once your parameters for possible topics are set. This process, like actual scaffolding, is adaptable to whatever final project you wish to construct. Built into my method are examples of soft, hard, and reciprocal scaffolding. Soft scaffolding involves dynamic instructor feedback tailored to each student’s needs; hard scaffolding is built into the design of the assignment; and reciprocal scaffolding involves peer feedback.

The actual scaffold: breaking down the assignment

The basic means of scaffolding projects is to break down a large assignment into smaller steps, building one upon another. The assignments are spread throughout the term, encouraging students to manage their time effectively and to refine their thinking on a topic, and allowing you to flag any potential issues. Typically, my research assignments include five basic steps:

  1. Topic proposal and preliminary bibliography
  2. Detailed annotated bibliography (with primary and secondary sources)
  3. Rough draft and/or outline
  4. Formal oral presentation with visual content
  5. Final revised paper

At each step, I provide feedback and notes to direct students towards more rigorous thesis statements, quality sources, and clear writing. Keep in mind that the goal of the scaffolded project is to make the end of semester grading more pleasurable, not to create an insurmountable mountain of work. Depending on the size of the class, the nature of each step could change.

For example, I may assign a detailed outline or a complete rough draft depending on length of paper, class size, and schedule. In small classes the rough draft stage may include individual or small group paper conferences; in large very ones, I may double-up on structured peer critique (see below), given that I may not have time to turn around all of the drafts in time myself. In all classes, it is also advisable to make use of one-on-one interactions through office hours or campus writing centers as a resource for students to consult. Bottom line: scaffolded projects can be part of any size class without placing undue burdens on the instructor or patronizing students.

Additional supports: peer review and input

To me, reciprocal scaffolding is one of the most important parts of this type of project. It provides an additional form of support beyond the instructor and generates a sense of ownership for each student’s topic throughout the term. Furthermore, each step promotes a supportive and lively classroom, which carries over into class discussion and group projects. There are a number of ways to incorporate peer feedback, and I include possible activities for the first four steps below. Which ones become a part of a particular syllabus depends on both the size of the class and the extent to which the course schedule allows time for peer-to-peer interaction.

  1. Hold a roundtable for project proposals. This is an idea I definitely stole from graduate seminars, but I’ve found undergraduates take very well to the process. Move the chairs into a seminar-style circle and have each student read their proposal to the group, allowing for conversation between each proposal.
  2. Prior to the annotated bibliography due date, have students bring in three physical books on their topic. This is particularly important with first year students, who often rely far too heavily on online resources. This activity requires students to actually visit the campus library and provides opportunity for partner work. Divide the students up into pairs and ask each student to provide a clear and specific description of their topic on the top of a piece of paper. Switch papers and books, and ask students to locate two useful sentences, arguments, or pages in each book for their partner to use. This assignment seems odd, but it reinforces skills in skimming and scanning resources and promotes discussion at the research stage.
  3. Set aside a day for peer review of drafts. Break the students into pairs and have them read through and mark-up their partner’s draft and fill out a worksheet detailing what they thought the paper was about as well as how effective its argument, language, and sources were. (See here for a sample worksheet.) Allow for discussion after. If time allows, or if your class size prohibits you from reading drafts, you may wish to do this twice so that each paper has two reviewers.
  4. Leave time for Q&A after each formal presentation. At this point, the students are very familiar with each other’s work and should be comfortable asking questions and even critiquing arguments and evidence. By making the final paper due after the presentations, this Q&A period is further cast as a supportive time to help one’s peers write the best paper possible.

Accountability: grading scaffolded projects

In order for a scaffolded project to work, each step must be factored into the final project grade. A typical breakdown for one of my assignments might weigh the steps as follows:

Proposal and preliminary bibliography: 5%

Annotated Bibliography: 10%

Rough Draft/Outline: 10%*

Formal Presentation: 15%

Final Paper: 60%

*A note on grading rough drafts: for a variety of reasons, I am against assigning an actual letter grade to drafts. I believe they should simply be no credit, half credit, or full credit. Otherwise a student who receives a high grade on the rough draft might not take the revision process seriously, which is central to the entire concept of assignment scaffolding.

This breakdown does two things: first, it requires students to complete each step, as missing any part will significantly lower the overall project grade. Second, it raises the stakes at each step, allowing for early inquiry to be relatively low-stakes and rewarding improvement following your feedback. The final output (the completed paper), like a newly-constructed building after the removal of scaffolding, “stands on its own” in the weighing of the final project.

In addition to the sample percentage breakdown above, another way to ensure the scaffolding process works is to include revisions in your grading process. This is where online platforms like Canvas, Blackboard, and Moodle are particularly useful in their ability to store every document submitted for the project in a place you can easily reference.

The grade for the final version of the paper, for example, could be broken down as follows: 30% for quality of argument, 30% for research and citation, 30% for prose and organization, and 10% for quality of revisions. This encourages the stronger writers to revise their papers rather than glide by on a strong first draft and helps the hardworking but struggling writers by rewarding genuine effort. I also frequently offer more points to revised annotated bibliographies if students find better sources (frequently replacing unscholarly websites or finding required primary sources).

Of course, how one chooses to grade final projects is completely an individual decision and indeed part of our separate teaching styles. However, thinking about how the scaffolded project will play out on the Excel sheet is important to making the process work for both students and professors.

One response to “The Scaffolded Research Paper”

  1. Dana Howard says:

    I love this idea. I also suggest that faculty consider asking students for a thesis statement with the annotated bibliography.

    Toward that end, I really like this blog post on writing a good thesis statement by Connie Griffin at UMass:

    Great post!

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