Planning A Syllabus: Scaffolding Learning Goals for a New Term

by Harmony Button

Welcome to Winter Term!  As you build your Canvas courses, upload your syllabi, and plan out exactly what kind of unit will fit in the three week window between now and winter break, here are a couple of ideas on scaffolding your assignments over the course of the term. This kind of thinking is not necessarily linked to writing, but it can certainly manifest in written projects or reflections. These are not groundbreaking concepts, but a quick overview might help provide some perspective on this coming term:

The Thinking

The poet WB Yeats believed that humans experienced time through alternately loosening and tightening funnels called the “gyres:” twin converging spirals that overlap at their pointy parts. This image of intersecting conical spirals comes to mind whenever I think about the relationship between the content of my course, and the skill sets I wish teach and refine: as I emphasize course content, I lose time I would like to dedicate to practicing skills, yet if I set aside material content, there is nothing on which to practice the skills.

This relationship between content and skill set is naturally one that shifts, depending upon where you are in your course. You may like to front load a class with reading (content) so that class time can be dedicated to application and discussion (skill sets). You may take a day to lecture (content) so that you can assign an essay or lab later in the week. You might plow through a dense unit in a couple weeks so that you can culminate in a self-directed research project toward the end of the term.

Sometimes, we don’t always take the time to think about how this balance between content and application plays out over the course of the term — and how the sequence of assignments we design can be used to scaffold skills, leading up to a culminating project. Putting some thought into the trajectory and intention of how your course builds skills (as well as develops content knowledge) can help sustain momentum and maintain a sense of purpose (for teachers as well as students) through the long winter months.

The Application

If you’ve taught this course before, take a look at the final exam that you gave, last year. What kind of questions did you expect your students to respond to, and how did you expect them to go about responding? Are these the same goals you have for this year’s class? What specific skills do your current students need to build, in order to reach these goals?

Review what new forms of thinking your students learned, last term. Overtly address these modes of thinking. Ask them to identify and describe these practices: inductive reasoning, deductive reasoning, geometric proofs, multi-source synthesis, close reading — whatever.

Identify new types of thinking your students will encounter this coming term, and try to situate them in the context of modes of thinking they have already encountered. If you will continue to practice and refine similar skills as last term, try to define and describe how the bar will be raised.

Think about your culminating project / paper / lab / exam. See if you can identify the modes of thinking that will be required for that project. Begin to design smaller projects that isolate and target these skills, building in an iterative practice of performance and feedback. Begin to combine skills and complicate assignments later in the term. Explain this scaffolding to students, so that they are keyed in to their own skill-building process and can practice accessing previous skills (ie, thinking about stuff they’ve already done) while they reach towards new goals.

The Habit

People like to know where they are: geographically, socially, metaphysically. The more we can map out our proposed learning paths for students, the more likely they are to stay on course during the journey to come. The more carefully we envision the balance between content and skills, the less likely we are to be surprised or disappointed in what our students can or can not do. And the more intentionally we look to our plans for the coming weeks, the less likely we are as teachers to fall into ruts of teaching: when we have clear learning objectives, we are more likely to adjust our own teaching habits and patterns to match the evolving goals of our classrooms.

Good luck in the gyre!

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