When we assign writing in class we often automatically assume that our students will go through a complete cycle of writing: rough draft, revisions, second draft, proof reading, and final paper. This assumption is often proved wrong once we receive the papers.

As it turns out, students will often hand in what basically amounts to a first draft. Many students (and inexperienced writers in general) believe that merely completing a paper is the same as finalizing it. Therefore, teaching students to utilize drafts is one possible way to improve student research, thinking, writing, and overall communication abilities in the classroom. In order to encourage students to work with drafts on their own, a system of “scaffolding” can be used in class. Simply suggesting that students work on their own with drafts without in-class structure and support will often not prove immediately successful as 1) students are not used to the process and might not completely understand how it works; and 2) if a student has never worked with a system of consecutive drafts before, realizing just how much time to set aside might ultimately prove difficult, especially for multilingual international students or new immigrants. On the other hand, the scaffolding technique allows the student to work with papers throughout the semester and breaks the task of writing a longer research paper into smaller parts.

A class in which scaffolding is used will present the student with a number of deadlines for different stages of the draft. It could looks something like:

  1. Two paragraphs about a possible subject are due alongside an initial short annotated bibliography. This forces the student to start thinking early in the semester about what the topic for the paper will be. It might ask for a complete thesis statement, or present an opportunity for the students to write about a topic that interests them as a means of discovering what they want to write about. A follow-up exercise, possibly after in-class discussion in smaller groups, could be to present a tightened and focused statement at the next meeting.
  2. A complete introduction containing a complete description of the topic, a focused thesis statement, and a more thorough bibliography. This will allow the student to work critically with the feedback received on the first two paragraphs. Being forced to work on focusing the topic will allow the student to go into the development of the paper on solid ground. Asking for a continued development of the bibliography at this stage also reinforces the relationship between research, critical thinking, and writing.
  3. A complete first draft of the paper. Asking for a complete first draft (again, stressing to the students that this is indeed a draft and part of a process and thus the product is not supposed to be done at this point) will prevent a collection of first drafts during finals week.
  4. Final paper.

Adopting a system like this might initially look like a lot of extra work for the professor; indeed, it will probably be more work in the beginning of the semester. However, as the semester progresses the work will decrease as the students work on their papers, and at the final stage: 1) the paper will be in much better shape than would otherwise have been the case; and 2) the professor will already be familiar with the paper and its argument, making the final grading an easier and ultimately more enjoyable process.

There are different ways of working with the drafts during the semester that will allow for the student to work with other students on the development of their writing (see Peer Evaluation). Following the notion that drafts are helpful in the process of developing and sustaining arguments, the primary focus of the ongoing work with the drafts might productively be on content and argument instead of on mechanics and grammar.

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