Building KU's Teaching and Learning Community

Scaffolding Writing Assignments to Engage Graduate Students—Judy Postmus (2006)


A new approach to writing assignments better meets the needs of and engages a broad range of students in a social work graduate course.


Social Welfare 843: Strengthening Staff Performance in a Diverse Workplace is a required course for second year graduate students in the Social Work Administrative and Advocacy Practice (SWAAP) concentration. This final-semester, skill-based course ties together organizational and management theories with team building and diversity principles. Most students enjoy taking this class, since it has limited additional readings and is applicable to their work in organizations. It also addresses the range of organizations they work in, ranging from public to private, profit to non-profit, and very large to very small.

The biggest challenge that I have found in teaching this course is meeting the needs of and engaging the broad range of students whose skills vary from those with no supervisory or management experience to others with many years of experience. What I wanted to create were assignments that illustrated student learning, challenged all students, and reflected how course goals were scaffolded.


Because these students were at the end of their masters degree work, they brought broad content knowledge that could be applied to a rigorous intellectual challenge. I decided to use a scaffold system to build concepts through the course assignments. These concepts were applied in increasing sophistication to the different papers. For the first assignment, the critical reflection paper, students had to apply an understanding of the initial course concepts to scholarly articles, and they had to fluently discuss diversity ideas that were present in those same articles. They wrote these papers on the second and third days of class, and by immersion in concepts and scholarly writing so early, they began the semester with a good look at current academic work, a strong background for the concepts in the scaffold.

Organizational analysis was the first layer of the scaffold and job analysis the second layer. These two topics were woven in every additional assignment. The group presentation, which came toward the end of the semester, integrated the conceptual work into one project, as it provided a contextual way to put the ideas into practice. The students worked as a team and did the presentation as a team, and they had to consider organizational climate and diversity in the performance evaluation.

One way that I could track student learning was through electronic submission of papers. By having students send me all their work in this manner, I had an easy means to continually assess their progress as they applied their increased knowledge to the course challenges. I could read and compare the work they were doing throughout the semester to determine if they were reaching the course goals; if not, I could make changes in the course materials to veer them in the direction they needed to go.

Student Work

I measured student performance primarily through their written assignments. Each assignment included lessons learned from the previous assignments. I also measured student performance through in-class presentation and their subsequent self-reflection on that presentation. I was pleased that by the time they did this culminating work, they effectively integrated the ideas and concepts.

It would have helped students throughout the semester if I had required specific ties to earlier papers. The students assumed that there was a thread that went through the semester, and I assumed that they would articulate it. Although I thought I had made the link transparent that was not the case: the students needed a more direct connection between the material we studied and how to incorporate it in their assignments. One thing that I will continue to work on for both the written assignments and in-class presentations is a template that will direct their work more clearly.

I truly enjoyed teaching this course. It was the fourth time I taught it, and I was more excited for it that I have ever been. When I taught it the year before, I was not happy about it and therefore was not looking forward to it. I am not sure what specific variables made it better this time. I believe that I saw the students make connections among all the projects, and I think that they did build on their knowledge as they continued through the course. The use of scaffolding meant they should reflect more, and I think that they did.

The preparation that we did for the in-class presentations appeared to make a positive difference in the teaching methods the students utilized for their presentations. We had spent a class session discussing methods for reaching adult learners. Their performances were much more creative and interesting, and they used more than a straight lecture style to present their content material, which is what I would typically see in a class. Because social workers spend a great deal of time communicating with groups and working as a team, it is important that they develop these skills.

While the grades for the student work have remained steady year by year, I think that the content has improved. This is more of a hunch than an established fact, but I believe the assignment guidelines gave the students better direction that led to the enhanced content. I also think I saw this deeper reflection in the positive way they evaluated the course. They mentioned how they liked the course work and how they were pleased to take useful ideas with them as they entered their professional fields.

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I taught Social Welfare 843: Strengthening Staff Performance in a Diverse Workplace for four years, a course that I chose to teach. The first time I taught it, I didn’t have any experience teaching such a course, so I based the student work on a revamped syllabus from a teacher who had taught it before. The following two years I used assignments that were similar, with a few new assignments added in the third year. However, I felt during the third year that the course wasn’t as exciting as it could be, and I decided to change its focus.

I attended a faculty seminar at the Center for Teaching Excellence, and through that experience, I shifted assignments. In essence, I made changes to make the course more appealing. I did this by narrowing the course focus and establishing enduring course goals that clarified what I wanted students to learn. I have leeway to make changes in the area of the course format, but there are set social work objectives to integrate into the course. Social work has universal standards, and these require that student meet certain set objectives as part of larger accrediting standards. The KU social welfare department also requires that its set of objectives be included in each course syllabus. Therefore, I made sure to include both the new enduring course goals and the social work objectives when I planned the course.

One element that has remained steady through the modifications has been the three basic assignments. The first time I taught the course, I had students look at a case study of their choice on three different issues. I kept that same assignment the second year. This year I discarded that assignment and replaced it with more prep work for the other three assignments to better scaffold learning.

Enduring course goals

  • Students will have the ability to supervise and manage social workers and other human service staff members by building teams and organizational cultures that maximize staff morale and job satisfaction.
  • Students will be able to create and maintain workplaces that reflect, contribute to, and celebrate diversity within human service settings with special attention to age, sex, race, ethnicity, language, religion, sexual orientation, disability, and cultural background.

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I had two primary objectives for the students. The first objective was to encourage students to understand their organizational culture and to create and maintain a diversity orientation. To accomplish this objective, I laid the foundation by scaffolding assignments. This foundation included the ability of students to assess the culture of their organization. The second objective enhanced the skills learned by maintaining a positive work environment that builds teams and motivates staff. Its purpose was for students to develop staff training skills while working as a team.

First objective
Since the base of the scaffold rests on students’ understanding of their organization and the diversity orientation, the first assignment asked them to write a critical reflection paper on sessions two and three. After completing each reflection paper, they spent time in small groups, followed by a large group discussion on their thoughts regarding the readings and how they applied to their organizations. Students then wrote up an organizational analysis paper that reflected their ability to assess their organization and comment on how the organization embraced diversity.

The next layer in the scaffold was for students to conduct job analyses, create job descriptions, and develop recruitment and interviewing strategies. We began using lecture and discussion, and then each student applied the readings on the subject to their own organizations. We also spent time connecting these new skills to their organizational culture and strategies to enhance diversity. Students completed a specific job analysis along with a job description, recruitment, and interviewing strategies. I wanted this paper to reflect students’ ability to apply these skills to their specific organizational culture; in addition, the paper needed to include strategies on practical ways to embrace and enhance diversity.

The final layer was for students to review, critique, and revise performance evaluations in their organizations. As before, we began using lecture and discussion followed by application of the readings to the students’ own organizations. We spent time connecting the skills to their organizational culture and employing strategies to enhance diversity. These skills were linked to their job analysis and job descriptions. In addition, students completed a specific performance evaluation and compared it with evaluations from other organizations. This paper reflected their ability to apply these skills to their specific organizational culture, including strategies on practical ways to embrace and enhance diversity, and tied in with the job analysis, job description, and strategies for recruiting and interviewing candidates.

Second objective
The students formed five teams, choosing a particular topic to study in depth. We spent two sessions lecturing and discussing training techniques and team building. Students then worked together to train the class on their particular subject, taking the entire class period. The presentations were done as a team. Each group had to reflect on what they wanted to accomplish through the presentation and how they would work as a team to achieve it. The class evaluated each training technique by providing feedback on the strengths and limitations of the training. Also, students wrote critical reflections of their training based on class evaluations and their own analysis, including how well the team worked together.

One way that I prepared them for their presentations was by talking about adult learning styles. For instance, I discussed that using only lecture was limiting, as some students learn better with experiential learning or others with discussion. My point was that they need to vary oral presentation styles in order to catch all types of learners. I think this discussion of learning styles was reflected in better presentations.

The group presentation did not introduce a new layer of scaffolding; instead, it incorporated the prior materials in a format that the students could use in their professional careers. They had to pick a topic that related to the ideas we had discussed throughout the semester, and the presentation had to include both cultural diversity and the topic. At the conclusion of their group presentation, each member had to write a detailed self reflection. It needed to include an account of their team process, an account of what that person learned by doing this project, a response to the peer feedback that they received and a plan for how that criticism would be incorporated in the revised final paper, and ideas for what they would do the next time they did a similar project.

Overall, I looked to see how they functioned as a team, how they presented their thoughts and ideas, and what type of presentation format they used. I intended for this process to provide students with the means to critically think about their presentations, something I didn’t think they had enough practice doing; they could think about ways to improve their own performance as well as comment on teamwork.

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Student Work

One project that I think was crucial was the critical reflection paper (see Critical Reflections #1 and #2 including Professor’s Comments), the first project the students did in the semester. In fact, they did it the second and third days of class. They had to report on an article (not a book chapter) and address the issues of organizational climate and diversity. This means they had to read, synthesize, and write. In previous semesters, we relied only on discussion as a way to understand the readings.

By doing this writing early in the semester, the students had to attack the course ideas. I wasn’t looking for a right or wrong answer, but I wanted to give students a chance to grapple with ideas by asking what they got out of it and how it applied to our subject matter. I saw growth in their discussions and later projects that I attribute to this early work. While I liked the learning bump that came from work on these papers, the actual reflections were not well-written papers.

A later assignment was a reflection paper (see the reflection papers below). I think they did better in their writing than students in previous semesters, although I don’t think the instructions were clear enough regarding what needed to be included. In spite of that weakness, they did okay.

When I look at student papers, I consider content and grammar, as do most teachers. In the assignment guidelines that I give students, I tell them what I will be looking for regarding grammar and the percentage for that element. I am not comfortable using a more detailed rubric, because I want flexibility when I examine the ideas that the students write about. What I gave the students were guidelines for written assignments and in-class presentations. These assignment guidelines incorporated all the ideas they used as they analyzed various components of working in an organization. I have done assignment guidelines in previous classes, and I continue to update them to fit each course.

After I did the grading, I used Blackboard to inform students about their work. I used this method with all papers for this class. On the earliest papers, I lowered the percentage in order to point out what writing issues each student needed to address. This offered students an important chance to make improvements before they had to turn in papers worth a greater percentage of their total grade.

Examples of graded written work (pdfs):

Critical reflections #1 and #2 student work including professor’s comments

Student reflection papers

Job analysis student work including professor’s comments

Organizational analysis student work including professor’s comments

The student group presentations addressed the second objective—the concept that provides for the development of teamwork. I liked how this project supported the framework that I created for the class. The students seemed to understand how they needed to make it work together. In intent, I was going to have the students use an entire class period for one presentation, but I made a mistake in creating the schedule and each group only had one hour instead of two. While this wasn’t a significant error, next time I plan to give each group the full class period. The students included more diversity materials than they had in the past, and I was pleased to see that.

Out of the five student group presentations, the final was the best by far. The students chose the topic of “burned out,” and they used a fire theme to link their material. What made this presentation so successful was the varied and successful methodology that they employed. For instance, they lectured, had a discussion on experiences, moved the audience to a different room in order to have experiential exercises, did self-disclosure on their own burn-out, and asked for input on application. They touched on every form of adult learning styles that we discussed in preparation for the presentations. Both the presenters and the audience were fully engaged, and this was quite an accomplishment: not only was it the end of the semester, but it was also an evening class after a full day of classes. This was the only group that received a score of 100%. They covered all that they had to do with an exemplary demonstration of learning methodology. Overall, all the class performances were better than in previous semesters: they were more engaging and used fewer lectures.

Examples of student presentation grades and evaluations (pdfs):

Grading for presentations

Performance evaluations

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Next time I teach this course, I may shift the critical reflection paper to an analysis paper. In a different course that I taught previously, I required an analysis paper. The students who took that class did a better job of writing and looking deeply at the article than did those students who had not done the analysis paper. For the reflection paper, the writer emphasizes what he or she thinks about the article, but in analysis, the writer must take the ideas a step further; the author answers the “so what” of the issue by creating a thesis statement and addressing what readers should get out of the text. Basically, the writer has to create a main thesis and argue, through the use of the article, to support that point.

When I reflect on the group presentations, I think it will be advantageous to change them in three ways:

  1. Tighten up the guidelines for the oral presentations.
  2. Give the students more time to present their materials to the class.
  3. Be more specific regarding their training on the topic.

Although I know that there are controversies surrounding the efficacy of student evaluations, I was surprised when I got mine back for this class, and I attribute the results to the course upgrades. I received perfect scores in every category, something that has never happened to me before. These increased evaluation scores weren’t tied to student grades, for if anything, the grades for this course were a bit lower than usual; that is, the average of the class didn’t change significantly. I was pleased to see how all the components of the course had fit together this semester, and my interest and enthusiasm for the course may have heightened student interest in it, too. I also believe that the students became more passionate because they could see the value of the assignments. They said they liked the work, and they appreciated the skills and ideas they were taking with them at the conclusion of the course. They also mentioned that they appreciated the attention to diversity, an important cornerstone of our discipline. Although I cannot discern with certainty why the student evaluations were perfect, it was great to get that positive feedback.

Contact CTE with comments on this portfolio:

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