Scaffolding the writing process: Framing a space for critical thinking in L2

Guest post by Melissa Simmermeyer, Romance Studies and 2011-2012 CIT-TWP Research with Writing Faculty Fellow.

This post is part of a series by the CIT-TWP Fellows discussing how they implemented changes in their course after participating in the program.  The Research with Writing Fellows was a joint effort between the Center for Instructional Technology and the Thompson Writing program and was led by faculty member Jennifer Ahern-Dodson.

One of our biggest challenges in Advanced Spanish Writing has always been finding a way to accommodate as many writing projects as possible in the course of the semester. By the time the other instructors and I got to our capstone 6-8 page research paper in Spanish, we had only about a month and a half left in the semester. We knew it wasn’t quite reasonable to expect students to produce a thoughtful, articulate, and well-researched essay in a second language (L2) on a complex topic in such a short period of time with only nominal structural support, but we didn’t feel we could sacrifice the course time it would take to thoroughly set up the scaffolding for the project. Some students had always managed to write really wonderful papers, but upon further reflection we concluded they might have achieved the same results no matter what. And it was readily apparent that all our students would benefit from a more articulated framework. As part of my work as a CIT-TWP Research with Writing Fellow, I explored alternative ways to teach and assess this research project assignment. In Spring 2012, my fellow Advanced Spanish Writing instructors and I radically changed our approach: we committed to quality rather than quantity. We were determined to create a space for our students to think.

Thinking Differently about Teaching Research with Writing

To achieve our objective, we implemented five key innovations:

1.  Eliminated an initial writing assignment;

2.  Broke down the research project into smaller constituent parts over a larger portion of the semester. The description of the research project remained essentially unchanged (write in Spanish a research paper that defends a position and refutes counterclaims on a controversial issue that is demonstrably relevant to the Spanish-speaking world);

3.  Introduced the “three E’s of sustainability” (Environment, Social Equity, and Economics) into the picture. Students had to make sure their topic could be housed under one of those three headings. By doing this, we framed our expectations more clearly;

4.  Grouped our 12 students into panels of 3-4 according to their research interests. Formerly, students had chosen topics without any kind of framework, and the groups for peer response had been determined by the instructor based on criteria that were never made transparent;

5. Required students to present their research to an audience in a panel presentation.

Here is an overview of the most important changes we made in the course:


Key Innovation Spotlight:  Research Panels

Research panels helped students deepen their understanding of their topics. As part of a small group of researchers  (#4 above), they knew the topics of their co-panelists fairly well and worked to identify commonalities (while also maintaining individual lines of inquiry) and transform their individual work into a coherent panel that would pique the interest of an audience.

Students worked as a panel “behind the scenes” and also presented the results of that work before an audience (#5 above). Besides the other students in the class and the instructor, each presentation also had at least one “friendly outsider’ in the audience, in most cases an Advanced Spanish Writing instructor from another section of the course. We considered this a small but crucial presence, since the writers would be required to consider their research from the perspective of someone who did not know them and was utterly unacquainted with what they were trying to achieve. This means in effect that the panels had to reframe their individual research agendas to fit within a new genre (along the lines of the elevator speech) and were obligated to articulate basic premises that they otherwise may have assumed that the audience shared with them (a challenge common to any writing project). This reframing of their material, however, did not invalidate the work they had previously done, quite the contrary, nor did it create “busy work” that the students might naturally resent.

The student researchers used Powerpoints or Prezis to present their work, and each panel was given twenty minutes, with a common introduction, roughly 3-4 minutes each to present the portions of their individual projects that applied to the panel, then a common conclusion, followed by 5 minutes for questions from the audience. When we gave instructions for the panels, we actively discouraged reading aloud and reminded students to take into account what they appreciate as a member of an audience and to apply those principles to their own panel. Very few students resorted to monotone reading during the actual presentations (a common but much lamented practice in academia); for the most part their contributions were well-practiced but still fresh, since they knew they would be presenting to at least one “friendly outsider”. This is a considerable achievement since one must bear in mind that they are not presenting in their first language.

One of the benefits of the research panels is that students incorporated both the experience indirectly and the feedback directly into the final versions of their research papers. I would argue that the experience of presenting required them to streamline their research, articulate it more clearly, and cut out the fluff, since they now clearly understood they had an audience (reader) for their work, to whom they owed a certain degree of consideration. Having an audience also legitimized their endeavor and markedly increased their confidence and their allegiance to their topic. The feedback they received, both during the preparation of the panel presentation from their peers and from the discussion after the presentations, showed up in their papers directly, often in the form of excising portions of the material that received no response or seemed to confuse the audience. (These were frequently tangents that the instructor had suggested eliminating in earlier versions.) Finally, the presenters also followed up on suggestions of other sources from the audience, which also greatly enriched their research paper.


I am delighted to report that the elaborate setup was worth it! No one missed that first essay, and assembling a formal and explicit scaffolding of the research endeavor for student writers yielded both anticipated consequences and some unexpected results as well. As we had hoped, the topics were more controversial, more engaging, more complex, better researched, and more expertly presented. Since we had built in so many opportunities for reflection along the way, students with an unworkable premise were able to work out for themselves that they needed to make a change. By putting ideas “through their paces” in their research panels student writers were able see for themselves how the ideas would play out and they learned to better predict what might interest their readers. Within the class each student became the resident expert on his/her subject. My fellow writing instructors and I were especially encouraged by some outcomes that we had not foreseen. In the previous iteration of the course we generally observed cooperation and generalized good will within the instructor-mandated peer groups, but what we witnessed in most of the research panels was something else altogether. The level of intellectual investment in the team, of genuine collaboration, and of informed, pointed feedback within the panels was something we had never experienced before. It was truly exciting to discover that marking off time and space for student writers to deliberate and try out ideas could in turn occasion the creation of a community of critical thinkers. Most students felt secure and validated, and did not hesitate to think aloud, explore, critique, and hone the ideas that were in play within the structure of their research panels. And they did it almost exclusively in Spanish!


There were three hiccups this semester. First, as coordinator of Advanced Spanish Writing I had to dedicate considerably more time than I had anticipated preparing instructions and designing rubrics for the many elements of the new setup. This will naturally resolve in future semesters since we now have a large stock of materials lined up. Second, between some of the steps I did not allow enough of an interval for instructors to give the just-in-time feedback that the student writers needed to process exactly at that stage. Since Advanced Spanish Writing meets twice a week, when the syllabus was constructed I worked backwards from the end of the semester, and made sure there was a day on the books for each of the steps. This sometimes meant that the instructor only had from a Tuesday to a Thursday to get some sort of feedback to the writer on a given step (though for most of the steps there was more time). Now that we’ve gone through the experience, perhaps I would sum it up as “value the process more than the product.” As I work out the syllabus for the upcoming semester, I will do my best to be mindful of the kind of feedback each step of the process requires (letter grade, check, paragraph of grammar/content suggestions, or one-on-one consultation) and how long it will realistically take for that feedback to be imparted. And finally, third, the transition between the literary analysis and the research project seemed rougher and more harried than ever. This has led us to conclude that we should reserve the genre of literary analysis for other courses, open up the beginning of the semester to more reading and exploratory writing, and allow more breathing room between some of the later stages of the research project.

Advice for other Faculty

The advice we Spanish Writing instructors would give to any professor designing a course with a research project is to remember that you can’t put up a decent-sized building without resorting to some temporary supports while you’re in construction. This is especially the case in a second language (L2) but it still holds true for the first language (L1). Try to create a structure where student researchers can learn on the job and share their work in progress without unnecessary risk. We found that if you establish a supportive environment in which accountability is still required and take the time to set up and inspect the scaffolding your class will need to make sure the research project is a successful venture in critical thinking, students will engage with their research and produce higher quality work.