The Academic Support Catch-22

There is a pattern among formerly-known-as-remedial “academic support” classes that I’ve noticed that may work against their intended purpose.

The pattern is a result of the assumption that the subtext of planning and preparation in most assignments in college needs to be made text. That is, the assumptions of what needs to happen for a college student to be successful need to be made explicit and accounted for. For example, here is a representation of creative writing that I think gives a pretty accurate representation of the work that has to be done vs. what ends up on the page:

writing iceberg

Academic support often seems to work by taking all of those hidden parts of the writing process out in the open and making them graded assignments themselves. An assignment that in another class might look like this:

Write a research paper on a topic covered in this class. (100 pts)

might turn into a weeks-long writing unit like this:

  • Brainstorming discussion notes (classwork)
  • Research goal discussion: 5 pts
  • Mind map: 2 pts
  • Library scavenger hunt (classwork)
  • Works Cited and Plagiarism worksheet: 5 pts
  • Outline w/ annotated Works Cited page: 10 pts
  • Outline pair feedback (classwork)
  • Introduction in-class writing (not graded)
  • Rough draft 1: 10 pts
  • RD1 peer feedback (classwork)
  • RD1 tutoring visit reflection discussion: 5 pts
  • RD2: 20 pts
  • RD2 professor feedback reflection Flipgrid: 5 pts
  • RD2 office hours appointment: 2 pts
  • FD: 70 pts
  • FD writing process reflection discussion: 5 pts
  • Optional FD re-submission for makeup points
  • Optional FD re-submission for makeup points reflection
  • Optional FD re-submission for makeup points reflection2

Ok, the last two are jokes, but otherwise this writing process, where every step is explained, given its own rubric, shared, and reflected upon, is quite normal for a writing class that is coded “for English learners”, “academic support”, or just has a professor trying a more workshoppy approach.

This can be invaluable unless it sets too strong a precedent for explicit requirements of the writing process in students’ minds. Some students, particularly in ESL, may have no idea at all what the writing process is supposed to entail or how to use the resources like libraries, tutoring, etc. It’s better that at least one class during a college student’s first year puts this all on the record, but it might be counterproductive if too many do. It shouldn’t be lost on us that each step made explicit in the “academic support” writing process makes it resemble a typical college writing assignment less and less. If students expect these steps always to be explicitly outlined, they may neglect them or delay them on assignments where they are not.

The contrast between two types of assignments in my classes crystallize these concerns for me. The first type resembles the detailed, all-steps-accounted-for work flow above. I have 2 papers in a term whose writing processes basically fill all of the 2 or 3 weeks ahead of their final due dates with discussions, peer review, presentations, and pre-writing. The second type is an “all-term” assignment given the first week of class and due the last week, usually worth a significant amount of points but doable in a few hours with the right preparation. Examples of this type of assignment are “go to an on-campus event and take detailed notes” or “email a professor in the department you plan to major in and ask 3 questions”. Students tend to do the first type of assignment with the appropriate level of dedication, preparing them well for the big essays that come at the end of the two- or three-week unit. At the same time, they tend to leave the second type of assignment until the weekend before the last week of class, days before they are due, and often run into problems like not having campus events to go to on Presidents’ Day weekend (this post is a topical one). This tells me that, in my classes at least, the precedent of having all the “underwater part of the iceberg” work outlined in detail for some assignments results in the underwater part being ignored for others.

Another factor may be that, for the first type of assignment, students are all doing the same thing at the same time and know that avoiding embarrassment during a week’s worth of discussions and presentations depends on their doing their work. For the second, on the other hand, students may all go to different events, email different professors, etc. all at different times and never have to show their work to their classmates. Again though, it is not unusual for major assignments in other classes to be solitary affairs. The many reasons that students seem to neglect solitary assignments with implicit requirements on time and preparation only highlight the problems that that neglect causes.

I don’t really have a solution for the skewing of expectations that academic support seems to produce – I just verbally warn students that most of the steps in our writing process will need to be taken of their own volition in their History, Psychology or Accounting classes. Maybe I need to give points for reflecting on that warning.

3 thoughts on “The Academic Support Catch-22

  1. Great post on a real problem.

    You might be familiar with the Vygotskian notion of “scaffolding” (the process of caregiver’s providing support for children’s participation in cultural routines). For (a real) instance, a dad watching his toddler daughter trying to fit shapes into a slot guides her by saying, “take it easy” (when she tries to jam the shape in), “turn it” (while demonstrating how), “you can do it” (when she’s almost got the shape to fit), “how about this one” (showing her a different shape when she’s using one that won’t fit), etc. His affect is warm and low key, not harsh or authoritarian. In doing this, he’s not just providing guidance for the specific task, he’s also modeling how to approach a difficult problem both practically and emotionally: no need to rush, check things out, be ready to try something else, etc.

    Generally, for caregivers, there are LOTS of episodes like this, day in and day out, which gives children time to internalize the processes that are being scaffolded; caregivers also gradually reduce the amount of support they provide to match the child’s increasing skill. So I’m not surprised that students don’t pick up on what’s needed right away, because internalizing “how to” knowledge takes time. In my own psychology classes, I always provided scaffolding of one sort or another for research projects and written assignments, because I wanted students to become aware of the processes that are involved in carrying out scientific research and writing. I know of undergraduate instructors in other areas (philosophy, history) who introduced scaffolding processes into their classes to enable students to appreciate the craft as well as the content of their fields. For instance, I always had my students read one or two articles in the scientific literature; it was a salutary shock for them to learn that the scientific literature could not be read in the same way as a Victorian novel. Similarly, what is needed for a philosophy class might be different from what is needed for a history class – it’s not one size fits all by any means.

    So it might be worthwhile to talk to instructors in the classes your students will be taking to see what they are going to be asked to do, and to see if there are ways you can relate the scaffolding you are providing to the processes that are used in other classes. This would also enable you to be more specific in warnings students about what they will need to be able to do in their future classes.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We are in the middle of the project you describe right now – I won’t be able to write about it here because we didn’t go through the IRB. I agree in principle with “scaffolding” complex tasks, but something seems to be missing – perhaps having scaffolded and unscaffolded assignments at the same time creates confusion?


      1. ?? Informal discussions with colleagues aren’t research; even more formal intra-institutional inquiries (e.g., asking colleagues to fill out a survey) probably wouldn’t be considered research. So I’m puzzled.

        If there’s any reason to believe that the project you mentioned would be considered research by your campus IRB, then you really shouldn’t bypass the approval process. I’ve looked at their website, and it’s only 1-2 weeks to get approval for exempt or expedited research, which seems reasonable to me.

        No need to provide any further information on this, in any case.


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