Scaffolding the Big Project

These suggestions are intended for major capstone or thesis projects – work that takes a semester or more. Students going through this kind of experience ought to already have some grounding in how scholars communicate and how to read scholarly writing.

warning: scaffolding incomplete sign

We all procrastinate. Deadlines creep up. We settle for less because we’re out of time. Semesters are incredibly short. When there’s a major project assigned in a course, it helps to set checkpoints. Requiring informal writing along the way can help keep big projects on track.

  • Develop a research/revision timeline for the entire semester and build it into the course schedule by requiring short, informal writing at key checkpoints both to keep students on track and to give them chances to clarify their own thinking process.
  • Students often are trying to do research on a topic they know little about. Avoid prematurely asking students to choose a focus or research question. They first need to spend time mapping a research area: what questions are being asked? how are they being asked? You might jump-start this process by providing a handful of key articles or authors. You can also have students draw maps of the subject area together if their interests intersect. Set an early deadline for this mapping process.
  • Early on, prompt students to identify major contributors to the conversation. Rather than thinking of collecting sources, describe sources as people talking to other people. Pay attention to where they disagree.
  • Spend time practicing how to trace citations both backward and forward. Though students learn to write citations, they have a hard time decoding them. (How do I actually find this thing? Where do I click?) Library catalogs and databases tend to act more like shopping platforms than webs of connections. Reading references, looking up promising ones, and seeing who has cited an important source using Google Scholar is a very different process than the usual database shopping expedition.
  • Encourage students to look for gaps in the research. Student researchers sometimes think novelty is not allowed, that research requires finding a source that answers the question. It might be valuable to discuss why a familiar source – Wikipedia, where original research is not allowed – serves a different purpose than a study or an experiment or an argument.
  • Early on, explore withe students the methods they prefer to use to keep track of ideas and source information. Discuss this as a class so students can learn from each other, but also so they can feel ownership of their own processes. There are some common pitfalls to avoid – for example, it’s a mistake to copy links to articles found in databases. In many cases, they are not permanent links; there may be a permalink option, but it’s often very cleverly hidden.
  • Students might find Zotero a useful way to manage citations. It requires something of a learning curve, and can be frustrating when it doesn’t work perfectly, but it’s especially valuable for semester-long projects and for students planning to go on to graduate school. If students are working on a project together, they may find Zotero groups useful.
  • Write early and often. Articulating a research question is hard work, and not something you want to do late in the game. Encourage students to express it again and again, as their understanding develops. (You really don’t want the dreaded “I changed my topic” a week before the semester ends.)
  • Have students do an informal annotated bibliography. Don’t sweat the citations too much. Those are just tiresomely hard-coded links. Instead, make sure students are able to express each source’s main point in their own words. Early experiences with writing from sources may have encouraged students to cherry-pick quotes out of context, harvesting them rather than reading entire articles. It can be challenging to switch gears.
  • Writing a literature review is really hard when you’re fairly new to an area of study. Just saying. Librarians may be able to help – not just finding sources, but helping students see how they can fall into a pattern and tell a story.

Some especially librarianish suggestions:

  • Talk to a librarian before the semester begins. We may need to beef up our collection. We also can create a guide to the most important resources.
  • Early on, let a librarian come to class to say hello and distribute contact information. Each student working on a project this complex deserves a personal librarian.
  • We’re totally happy to meet with the entire class, but if that doesn’t fit your schedule, no worries – we have office hours. We can schedule individual appointments. You are not imposing! This is our job, and it’s our favorite part of it.
  • If students present their work in class or at a colloquium, send us an invitation. It’s awesome to see how things turn out in the end, even if things aren’t quite perfect.

photo by Tim Green