Scaffolding and the Rhetorical Criticism Course: A Case Study

by Guest Blogger on June 4, 2014

beselGuest post by Richard Besel,  Associate Professor in Communication Studies, and member of the 2013-14 Learning Community, Beyond the Term Paper: Integrating the Teaching of Research and the Teaching of Writing. 

 Last month I wrote an entry for this blog about the use of scaffolding for college writing instruction. More specifically, I identified five pedagogical considerations that I hoped would aid instructors as they made their decisions about how to further incorporate scaffolding into their class activities and assignments. For those of you who have not yet had an opportunity to read last month’s posting, scaffolding may be defined briefly as a learning process which provides students with the support needed to complete a task that they otherwise would not have been able to complete independently. Of course, good instruction involves the eventual removal of the scaffolding once students are able to complete their tasks without assistance. In this blog entry I wish to discuss how the five considerations from last month have been put into practice in one of the writing-intensive classes I teach on a regular basis: Rhetorical Criticism. My aim is to provide additional details and helpful ideas related to scaffolding by using concrete examples from my own teaching experiences.

Writing skills often top various lists of attributes needed to succeed after college. While there are a variety of ways one may teach students these valuable skills, the first consideration I Skeletons, Frames and OUtlinesmentioned last month involves the use of skeleton frames and outlines. In the Rhetorical Criticism course I have found that when students are given an initial outline for the final criticism paper, I can use it to accomplish a number of scaffolding goals. First, I usually give the students a one-page outline within the first week or two of the course, so there is plenty of time to digest what it is they are supposed to do. The outline allows students to begin envisioning their final act of criticism. Second, as students read assigned essays that serve as models of rhetorical criticism, they use the outline as an interpretive tool to understand the assigned readings.  In advanced courses my students often have difficulty reading specialized academic writing; the outline acts as a guide. In class discussions I often ask the students to examine a particular passage in the model and then locate its corresponding term or concept in the outline. Finally, the outline gives students a starting point for their assignments, thereby reducing the feelings of anxiety one often encounters when beginning the writing process from scratch. However, despite the accomplishment of these goals, students should still be reminded that the outline is simply a guide and not a series of hoops one needs to jump through to get a good grade in the course.

While skeletal frames and outlines are popular in writing courses, the second consideration I mentioned in my previous blog entry was the use of what I called horizoned isolation exercises. The general idea is to ensure that the skills developed in one isolated assignment will be used in the next assignment just over the horizon. For example, as students learn how to write an effective research question or thesis statement, a short homework assignment testing their ability to do so may be appropriate. For my course, I ask students to correct five questions or statements. They must also write a brief response with their rationales for the corrections. The skills they hone in this exercise will then be used when they craft their own questions and statements for the larger paper.

The importance of instructor feedback and (re)writing for the learning process cannot be overestimated. Based on the models of criticism read during the quarter, their use of the outline, completion of short assignments (such as the research question assignment mentioned above), and class discussions, students in Rhetorical Criticism are tasked with writing a “half paper” draft (approximately six pages). This draft should reflect the students’ best efforts and is a major graded assignment. However, when offering feedback I try to focus on comments that will help students grow as writers. I should stress that these are not simply editing comments. The emphasis should be more conceptual. I may ask myself: What feedback should I write to help the student sharpen his or her main argument? Is there a conceptual comment I may offer to guide the analysis in a different and more productive direction? Would the paper be stronger with a different organizational pattern? These are just a few of the “big” picture questions I believe instructors should engage with their feedback on a regular basis. Once the students receive the comments, they then revise their papers.

Similar to instructor feedback, peer feedback and (re)writing is also a useful scaffolding strategy. Once students have completed revisions to their half papers, they are invited to draft the remainder of their texts (approximately 12 pages total). Regardless of whether or not students have completed their papers, they are given the opportunity to workshop their assignments in class. Before the workshop, students exchange their revised drafts and new material with the objective of offering peer feedback. This non-graded exercise allows students to read and comment on what it is their peers are writing. More often than not, writers benefit from the comments; in addition, reading how other students have approached the assignment has proven remarkably insightful for those who offer the feedback. Students are able to incorporate what they have learned from their peers into their next round of revisions.

sevenrusticgearsWhile many writing instructors have used some combination of the previously mentioned scaffolding strategies, it is in the final consideration where I believe we often need the most work: using scaffolding across courses. It is too often that papers written in a course never have a life beyond that course. This is not to say that every undergraduate paper should be presented at a conference, but it is to say that instructors should think carefully about the relationships that exist between departmental courses and activities. For example, at Cal Poly all undergraduate students must complete a senior project before graduating. In Communication Studies some of these projects are written acts of criticism. When teaching Rhetorical Criticism, I intentionally shape the assignments in such a way that students are able to use their improved skills with their senior projects. In some instances senior projects consist of expanding and refining their course papers. When students understand that there is a “payoff” that lies beyond the course, they seem to engage the assignments with an added dimension of seriousness than if it were not present.

Based on five pedagogical considerations for scaffolding use in teaching college writing, I have attempted to offer details related to a particular case study, the teaching of Rhetorical Criticism. Clearly, there are additional scaffolding strategies one may use. These five items are not exhaustive by any means. However, I hope that this entry has given readers a few additional scaffolding ideas, or, at the very least, added a needed sense of affirmation as you put these concepts into practice.

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