This quarter, my schedule happily accommodates courses at the University of Washington’s Center for Teaching and Learning (an incredible resource full of knowledgeable people that I sheepishly admit to never having heard of prior to this year). I am involved in a weekly workshop entitled Designing and Assessing Creative Assignments and a weekly Learning Community entitled Designing and Grading Assignments for International Students, English Language Learners, and Everyone Else. My copious notes and regular “aha” moments are guaranteed to carry over into this blog for some time to come.
Last week our Learning Community leader introduced the concept of scaffolding tasks, especially via the implementation of low stakes writing. By “low stakes,” I refer to writing that is informal, exploratory, less comprehensively graded (if at all) than a research paper (for example), and iterative. By “scaffolding,” I mean the breaking down of larger tasks (such as writing a research paper) into smaller individual tasks through which specific skills are introduced and practiced (such as formulating research questions or a thesis statement, knowing how to summarize an assigned reading, or simply knowing how to identify the basic argument of an assigned reading in the first place).
I was not previously familiar with the term “scaffolding” used in this context, but quickly realized that I have been ruminating upon how to scaffold tasks in my section that will prepare students to execute timed written essays pertinent to art history exams. These essays often require students to contextualize specific works of art by condensing weeks’ worth of information from lecture, readings, and discussion sections into a 20-minute hand-written response. I am a big believer in this type of assessment since it requires students to actively utilize course content (in contrast to the rote memorization required by slide IDs). However, the experience of completing one of these essays for students new to the discipline often constitutes a rather rude shock, which, admittedly, can be effective for better study habits the next time around but can be also very demoralizing, especially for students who are not confident in their writing skills.
So. Here is my current action plan for scaffolding assignments relevant to timed exam essays.
I have asked students to bring anonymous discussion questions to class every Thursday. To date, these have been used in section to generate conversation about course content and out of section for me to monitor, in a rough way, which topics students identify as important or in need of clarification. Now, however, I have refined this requirement and asked them to write questions that could be potential essay prompts. We discussed what kind of information might be required in such a prompt: specific examples; historical, political, and religious contextualization; situation within an art movement; a specific time frame or century. My hope is that students will both: 1. More deeply consider how to write a rich yet specific discussion question, and 2. Reflect on how they might be challenged to integrate information from various sources. These questions will be used to guide scaffolded exercises in the future.
Today I presented the class with a comparison of Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes, c. 1598,[i] and Artemisia Gentileschi’s painting of the same title from c. 1614-1620.[ii] I split the class in half. Those on Caravaggio’s side were asked to write down brief bullet-point notes about the formal elements of the work; those on Gentileschi’s were asked to do the same for hers. I clarified that this was an exercise in identifying formal elements (light, line, texture, internal geometry, perspective, etc etc), mining adjectival vocabulary, and warming up writing hands.
After about three minutes of diligent writing, the students were paired together, one Carravagisti with one Gentileschi. I asked them to take turns expressing, out loud and in their own words, the formal elements they deemed most pertinent and/or obvious in the work. This very naturally led to an exercise in compare/contrast. I moved from group to group, listening and checking in. I wrote relevant vocabulary words on the board as I heard them: tenebrism, chiaroscuro, foreshortening. I heard the word “dark” thrown around a lot: dark colors, dark light, dark painting. After I had visited all the groups and given adequate time for discussion – probably seven minutes or so – I called their attention to images and reviewed the vocabulary words. I asked them to consider which formal elements, exactly, were “dark”, and to explain what they meant by that: we discussed the use of tenebrism (extreme contrast through brilliant, spot-lit lighting), the richness of the colors (rather than their “darkness”), the relatively simple color palette of each artist (red, black, white, yellow), and the dramatic use of compositional axes via the arms and bodies of the figures. Although I led the inquiry at this point, students felt free to chime in with their visual discoveries, to contribute words or, if struggling, to canvas their peers for words. After all, a successful formal analysis relies on a concise, vibrant, effective use of words: it is a kind of writing that does not come naturally to an audience trained to see subject.
Finally, I asked each student to consider how the formal elements changed or influenced their reaction to the work. I asked them to consider the artists’ choices. I asked them to consider the gender of each artist and the biographical and stylistic information we had about them from lecture (to briefly, and perhaps unfairly, summarize: Caravaggio the Genius Artist and notorious Bad Boy, Gentileschi the sexually assaulted yet ultimately internationally triumphant female artist). I then asked them to coalesce their thoughts about these works – including the formal elements and a reflection on interpretation – in a hand-written paragraph. I emphasized that they needn’t encompass everything in this short exercise, but rather attempt to synthesize, in written word, their visual observations and thoughts about the works.
Ultimately, I wanted to exchange these paragraphs in class and discuss the challenges of such an exercise as well as the triumphs. We didn’t have enough time to do so, however, so I have asked them to return on Thursday with their writing.
A few students commented before leaving on how hard it was to write their thoughts in full, formal sentences. Others were unclear about what they were meant to write, and their confusion was well-founded: in future, I would have an explicit prompt prepared to which they could respond with a few sentences. It was too vague to simply say: now turn your brilliant observations into an interpretive paragraph! Fair enough. Lesson learned and note taken.
I am curious to see what Thursday brings. I am curious to hear their feedback. My students have amazingly positive attitudes, vibrant personalities, and very keen eyes: but are they learning? I am enjoying their attendance, their insightful thoughts, their humor so much: but when the exam comes, will they be prepared? Ultimately, I plan to continue implementing hand-written tasks in section, possibly with informal and supportive peer review, and balance this with a healthy dose of small group and all-class discussion.
More about scaffolding assignments to come, I can assure you…