by Natasha Teutsch, Integrative Biology

Example of a Semester-Long Assignment
Designing a Scaffolded Assignment

Example of a Semester-Long Assignment

Your GSIs have prepared a list of potential projects for this course (see below). Some projects are fairly narrowly defined while others allow you the freedom to ask a broad range of questions about plant ecophysiology. They are all designed to give you exposure to asking questions about ecophysiology and to the methods that are commonly used in this field. You will carry out these projects in groups of two to four students.

During our first lab, we will ask you to choose a project topic that is most interesting to you. In the second week of lab, we will set up those experiments together so that you will be ready to make your measurements on established plants later in the semester. By week 6, you will need to turn in refined questions for your project. Two weeks later (week 8), you will turn in a research proposal (100 points) that outlines the research you plan to carry out for your project. The proposal must include five parts:

  1. a statement of the research objective(s) and goal(s)
  2. a description of the methods to be used, including what you will measure, how you will measure it, what your experimental design is, and the equipment you will need to carry out your project
  3. a short discussion of the predicted results for your experiment
  4. a list of references (five to fifteen) on the research topic that clearly indicate you are aware of the relevant literature
  5. a list of references in which the authors employ the methods you plan to use

After your proposal has been approved, there will be a sign-up sheet for equipment that you must put your name on if you hope to have access to any of it.

You will begin your research during the ninth or tenth week of the semester and will be able to collect data for approximately four weeks. This should allow sufficient time to collect enough data so that you can draw some firm conclusions. We will be available for consultation throughout the semester.

After you complete your project, you will have two things to accomplish: A written report to be handed in on May 6 and a fifteen-minute oral presentation of your study, its results, and implications. You should be prepared to give it at the bi-annual UCB Plant Physiological Ecology Symposium on May 12.

If you are not thoroughly aware of how to use the library for tracking down references, following up specific reference citations, and on how to use the various abstracts, please see one of the instructors — we have handouts to help you.

If you are not thoroughly familiar with how to write a scientific paper, or what is expected for the research project, please see one of the instructors — we have handouts to help you.

Designing a Scaffolded Assignment

Writing a substantial paper is a daunting task for many students. You can help relieve some of their uncertainty or anxiety in the way you structure and support it. Effective design of writing assignments involves three basic stages:

Scaffolding the Assignment
Helping Students Organize Essays
Developing a Strategy for Evaluation

Scaffolding the Assignment

“Scaffolding” as it’s used here is a metaphor for an instructional strategy that gives students some external support for a specific element of a challenging task, then moves on to another challenging task, and so on until the entire project is completed. For example, segmenting a complex technical or scientific paper into smaller, manageable phases is one scaffolding technique that is often very helpful for students.

  • Acknowledge that writing is a difficult process, even for the most seasoned academics.
  • Give students clear, concrete instructions.
  • Help students understand that good writing takes hard work, and that they shouldn’t expect to write things perfectly on their first try.
  • Build in-class time to do peer reviews so that students learn to edit their own work and the work of others.

If your course allows you the freedom, plan for students to carry a research project throughout the semester. You can help break down the process by asking them to turn in a series of smaller assignments:

  • At the beginning of the semester, ask students to propose a research question or topic.
  • Have students clarify this question and provide an annotated bibliography to demonstrate that they are familiar with the literature on the topic. This would be a good time to ask students to have well developed, testable hypotheses.
  • Ask students to write a research proposal with a developed introduction and a description of the methods they plan to employ. In the proposal, they should focus on providing a context and rationale for their research.
  • If time permits, allow students to carry out their research and analyze their data. You may ask them to turn in tables, figures, and graphs with legends. This will allow you to converse with students about effective ways to communicate quantitative information. It will also provide the framework for the results and discussion sections.
  • As a grand finale, have students write up their results in a formal report using the format that is most common in your discipline. They should have most of the paper already written by this point since they have already developed majority of the information for the introduction and methods in their proposals.

Helping Students Organize Essays

Teach students how to organize science papers by providing them with examples and analysis.

For example, provide students with a published example of science writing.

  • Ask students to comment on the paper’s organization. Emphasize the divisions and subdivisions in the paper (e.g., in the Methods section, there are sections that address the study site, the statistical analyses used, the sample methods, etc).
  • Ask students to comment on the clarity of the writing. Provide (or generate as a class) a list of attributes to evaluate:
    – precision of the language
    – thoroughness and detail
    – formatting and appropriate use of references and citations
    – effectiveness of tables, graphs, and figures
  • Provide students with a written analysis of the organization of the paper, paying special attention to the Results and Discussion sections. You may want to discuss how information was effectively (or ineffectively) communicated in the figures, tables, or graphs. Emphasize that the discussion section should place the study in the larger context of what we know and evaluate the data. It should answer questions the author proposed in the beginning.
  • Have small groups of students choose a short journal article to evaluate. Ask them to critique the paper for organization and clarity. These assignments could be turned in for a grade.

Use this same model for peer editing when the students write their first lab reports.

Provide students with a guideline for writing and grammar.

Always review the effectiveness of your assignment design as the students are doing it and afterwards. What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of the assignment you’ve designed? What will make it clearer and more beneficial for students next time around?

Developing a Strategy for Evaluation

When developing a method for evaluating student writing, you may want to incorporate the following components in your grading rubric:

The content of the writing:

  • Was the student thorough with her explanations?
  • Did the student complete the appropriate background reading/research?
  • Did the student argue his or her points logically?
  • Was the content effectively organized?

The clarity of the writing:

  • Does the paper communicate the student’s ideas effectively?
  • Is the writing concise and direct?
  • Are all sources cited properly?
  • Did the student adequately proofread the paper?

Again, your students are most likely to succeed in each of these aspects of their writing if you have explained your expectations with them clearly, and if they have received substantive feedback at each major step in the project.