Alden Teaching Award Recipients Build Writing Skills With Scaffolding

March 30, 2021
By: Nancy Sheehan

Two Worcester State University faculty members, both recipients of the 2020 George I. Alden Excellence in Teaching Award, dove into the world of scaffolding to aid in the writing process during the annual Alden Lecture on Friday, March 26.

The Alden Excellence in Teaching Award honors faculty who have inspired students and contributed notably to their success through teaching excellence. Each year the recipients present a lecture on topics important to higher education. The 2020 winners were Christina Santana, Ph.D., assistant professor of English and director of the Writing Center, and Jennifer Hood-DeGrenier, Ph.D., professor in the Biology Department.

“This is pretty much my favorite event that happens each year,” Provost Lois Wims, Ph.D., said, as she introduced Santana.

“Dr. Santana identifies as a community-engaged writing scholar, a focus that orients her toward practical and inclusive projects that can effect change in and outside the institution,” Wims said. “She sees her writing courses as experiences that enable students to become multi-literate, publicly engaged, and critically reflective with the means to better envision themselves as individuals and as public citizens.”

Wims then introduced Hood-DeGrenier, Ph.D., who is chair of the Pre-Med Advisory Committee.

“Dr. Hood-DeGrenier cares deeply about training students in the research process and developing their communication skills,” Wims said. “As pre-med advisory chair, she has implemented new structures to help support our WSU students who aspire to attend medical or other health professional schools, driving the creation of a new minor and several concentrations tailored to these students’ best interests.”

Scaffolding is a process of breaking up a writing assignment into chunks and providing a tool, or structure, with each chunk. The aim of scaffolding is to provide support while undertaking a project, much like the scaffolding set up along the exterior of a building does during construction work. The process can help students become better writers and helps prevent them from becoming overwhelmed by showing them how to take small steps toward completing a larger task.

Scaffolding student writing assignments can have several goals, Hood-DeGrenier said. “One is that writing can be used to help students increase the clarity of their thought about whatever they are studying,” she said. It can be “a means of helping them realize when they aren’t clear

on something, and then hopefully pushing them to become clear in the way they’re thinking about a particular topic.”

When it comes to science, students may have insufficient understanding of the topic to write clearly, a problem the writing process can help identify.  “They may just feel overwhelmed if they are given a large assignment, particularly if they’re given an assignment to write an entire lab report,” she said. To avoid that, Hood-DeGrenier never assigns entire lab reports in introductory level classes. “I have them focus on one section at a time so they can learn the conventions and practice skills in a smaller context, which is less threatening to them.”

In intro classes, Hood-DeGrenier sets up a scaffolding structure even before the writing begins, asking them to think about experiments by using a set of questions that will get them started on the pathway toward expressing their thoughts clearly. Those questions include: What prior knowledge informed the experiment? What question were they trying to answer? How did they go about answering that question? What were the results? What did they actually observe and what can you conclude from the results?

To help students answer those questions, Hood-DeGrenier has come up with a formula that students can use as they write the results section of a paper, which is the heart of a scientific paper. “I’ve used this for a long time, and I think it is very effective at helping students to, at least, get down this one really core part of scientific writing,” she said.  It involves answering five questions: Why, how, where, what, and so what?

“So, I give them these questions to scaffold their writing of results, and this is the first section we tackle in the intro classes, so that they can build their skills on that and then move on to some of the other parts of a scientific paper,” she said.

Santana spoke about several strategies she uses to scaffold writing instruction in the Writing Center and in class. She said one scaffolding strategy is connecting students with community organizations that share their interests and values. As an example, she spoke about a grant writing class she taught in 2019 and hopes to offer again soon.

“I try to open doors for students who are interested in practical writing careers and there’s a healthy market in grant writing, so that was a main reason I really wanted to get students into that space,” she said.

She designed the class so that students would be immersed in matching the client’s needs with the wide arrange of funding opportunities that exist. “If you’ve never really looked at funding opportunities, they can be so specific and they are so many. That was wonderful for the students to see.”

The students were challenged to find grant opportunities that fit the client’s unique situation, then the clients chose the best grant opportunities that they wanted the students to pursue.

“The students worked hard to write persuasively to show that they understood and believe in the client’s mission,” she said. “This was a point that we spent a lot of time talking about because to write on behalf of someone else, and to really take on their positionality, and to try to make the best argument for the client is a really tricky space. But in the end, the clients gained familiarity with the grant writing process and the grant writing world, and the students gained experience working on behalf of a client.”

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