Scaffolding Student Projects: Seven Decisions

By Edward O’Neill

Why give students collaborative projects?

Many factors come together to make the assignment a good learning experience, and this means many decisions must be made.

Collaborative or group projects can be powerful learning experiences.

  • The students are the agents.
  • They must work together, debate, explore ideas by articulating them to each other, and come to agreement.
  • There is a tangible thing at the end, something they can see and touch and take pride in.
  • When the projects are made over time, students get feedback as they go. In educationese we call this: formative assessment, i.e., measuring student learning in order to spur on progress.

What kinds of projects do expert teachers assign?

Over the last several years, I’ve worked with professors who used the following kinds of projects for the following class topics.

  • Advanced French Prose Writing. Students research and write a multi-character novel about people living in a specific, real apartment building in Paris.
  • Literary Criticism. Students write, edit, lay out, and publish a literary magazine.
  • The Life Sciences. Students design, write, edit, and publish pamphlets explaining scientific literature to relevant lay audiences.
  • Visual Studies. Students curate an online exhibition & catalog.
  • The Social Sciences. Working in groups, students write a research paper using data sets the instructor supplies and consulting with the instructor and each other to develop their methodology.
  • Econometrics and Data Analysis. ​ Students work in small groups to answer a substantive question they care about by gathering, describing, and analyzing real data sets.

Most of these assignments are “authentic”: students make a real thing recognizable to non-experts and with utility outside strictly academic exercises (i.e, “write a paper about X”).

Most teachers who see this list will spot one that might be adapted to their courses.


Seven challenges to organizing student group projects

How do you help them get and stay organized?

  • Such organizational structures which help students build their knowledge over time can be called scaffolding. The metaphor is those structures put up around a building to allow the building to be built–after which the scaffolding is taken away.

We can make progress towards scaffolding by considering seven decisions concerning the organization of the class time and the students’ relationships.

  1. Are the learners going to build something one piece at a time?
    • Because at the end, the pieces may not fit together.
  2. Will they just do one large project?
    • Because it could end up being a mess, and there are no second chances–hence no real learning.
  3. Do they pursue their work outside class?
    • While also doing reading and other homework? That’s like an extra class.
    • And then they have to turn the work in, you have to grade it and return it to them, they need to digest the feedback. You’re talking three or four weeks for one step: they do it, you write feedback, they get the feedback, then the move on to the next stage.
  4. Does everyone do the same project? A piece of one big project?
    • Because if all the students solve the same problem, the projects might all end up the same. Or if there’s one “right answer,” everyone may get it quickly–or worse, not get it.
  5. What formats and media do the students use as they go?
    • Presentations? Papers? Mock-up’s?
  6. How do you know the students learned something?
    • Can you really design activities that show what the students understand the first time out? It will likely take you a few tries to fine-tune the assignments. What happens in the meantime?
  7. Finally, how do you grade the work?
    • Is there a letter grade for every step? How do you avoid grading, grading, grading–and discouraging the students as well by putting pressure on their every comma and square root?

All these pitfalls may sound discouraging. But the good news is: there are some pathways you may not have considered that avoid some of these pitfalls.


We can consider these options using a research paper as an example: not because it’s an authentic project, but because it’s familiar to most teachers.

1. Consider assigning ‘small wholes’ of increasing size instead of parts of a larger whole.

Often when we think of working on a project over time, we think of a big whole thing that has parts. A paper has:

  • a bibliography,
  • a lit review,
  • an introduction,
  • a body,
  • a conclusion.

We then ask the students to make the parts and then just glue them together.

Often the ‘gluing together’ is not so easy. And what’s more: a fault start can mean a poor finish.

An alternative approach is to consider the smallest possible version of the whole and then to ask students to make several of each, winnowing as they go, and growing the tasks in size. E.g.,

  • For a paper, a hypothesis might be the smallest possible whole which contains the germ of something larger.
  • One paragraph might be a bigger ‘small whole.’
  • A one-page paper might be the next step, followed by two-page papers, etc.

In this case the scaffolding might be:

  • First students write (say) ten hypotheses. These are subject to discussion and debate.
  • Then the students pick (say) the five most viable hypotheses, and they write three paragraphs for each hypothesis.
  • The same process repeats with (perhaps) three one-page papers, two three-page papers, and finally one final paper.

It’s survival of the fittest.

This way students try different approaches and decide what works in conjunction with the instructor and each other. The students avoid a weak foundation which can’t possibly support a larger building.


2. Consider giving the students a ‘trial run’ project followed by the ‘real thing.’

Often our students come to us already having experience doing the type of work we’re asking: writing papers or lab reports, etc.

But they may not be great at these things, and we hope what we teach them is new.

If we only give them one chance to refine their skills and demonstrate their knowledge, they may not ‘get it’ the first or even second time. So we typically want to give them several opportunities to try, fail if need be, and then succeed.

When we walk the students through a process slowly and carefully, if we allow enough time, we can then let the students do it on their own more rapidly.

This is one of the most distilled descriptions of scaffolding: the gradual transfer of agency and control from the teacher to the learner. A ‘trial run’ project lets the students ‘get the ropes,’ stumble around, and then do it better the second time.


3. Projects can be completed during class to avoid a long turnaround time on grading or feedback. But this reduces ‘content coverage.’

Whether students do one project or two or three, there is the question of when the work gets done and where, how much time goes into it–and where the time comes from.

  • If students do project work outside class time:
    • that either takes time away from reading and other homework, or it takes time from elsewhere in the student’s life;
    • students may need to meet in person, and their schedules can make this difficult;
    • you then need to take the work, write comments, return it–ideally before the students do the next step, which typically requires input on the prior step.
  • If, however, students do project work during class time:
    • you can set high expectations for reading and homework;
    • students don’t need to schedule meetings–there’s a time already set aside;
    • you get to give the students feedback right then and there. There’s no stack of papers or maquettes to take home and pore over.

But this means in-class time is not dedicated to other things–like discussion or lecture.

It is possible to use the project to apply, say, concepts from the reading. But most professors want dedicated time during class meetings to go over what’s been read or studied, separate from any focused project work.

Having a long project all by itself, in addition to losing class time, thus sometimes mean the instructor must cover less material, and many instructors are not willing to do this.

In my experience the instructors I know who dedicated large amounts of class time to big projects find it very rewarding.

  • They have focused time with the students in groups giving everyone help.
  • The instructor feels involved, and the student gets extensive expert input (or “formative assessment”).

4. Consider opportunities for different group projects to feed into each other.

Is everyone doing the same thing? A part of some larger whole–i.e., a ‘jigsaw’?

For a small class, one project with a few teams can work fine. But for larger classes, some ‘social coordination’ can be useful.

  • If everyone solves the same problem, that is generally quite dull.
  • If each group solves their own problem, then they have little to tell each other.
  • If each group approaches one piece of a large problem or project, then they can work separately and then coordinate.
    • This can make for very rich interactions.
  • Finally, some professors ask students to do individual work, choosing elements of a broad topic.
    • Then once some basic research has been done and topics defined, the professor puts the students in groups with related interests.
    • Each student acts as an ‘expert’ within the group, and they create a single project that synthesizes their individual work.

5. Consider using different media for different types of assignments.

Presentations? Papers? Infographics? Videos? Always use the same medium–the one they’re going to end up with? Or different tools for different kinds of work? Guided by what principles?

There is some virtue to using the same format or medium for every step in a long process: people get used to it, get better at it, or master it.

But there is a virtue to using different media and formats: from a Tweet to a Powerpoint to an infographic to an essay to a video.

  • First, our initial understanding may be sprawling or tiny.
    • Gathering all the relevant thoughts and facts may be a useful step and may require a large document.
    • Focusing down to the essence, condensing and distilling our understanding can help to focus it. So small, even reductive formats (like a diagram) can be useful.
  • Second, using different forms of representation may actually help students build their understanding.
    • In STEM fields, much research shows how using multiple forms of representation are required for complex problem-solving. It would be surprising if there were no parallel in other disciplines.
      • We don’t understand a complex phenomenon immediately in one instant.
        • We see a painting as a whole, then study its parts, then the interactions.
        • Each time we re-grasp something about the whole until we understand the painting not as just one inert thing but as a complex dynamic whole.
      • First we grasp the locations in Hamlet, then the plot, then character motivation, etc. in increasing degrees of complexity.
  • Finally, students have varying degree of skill with Powerpoint and prose (to name only two), and so different media give different students the opportunity to shine–or to get better at some specific skill.

In my experience, most any tool can be used for most any step in a process of planning, drafting, revising, and delivering. But you should explore and draw your own conclusions that work for you and your students.

And when you are at a loss, it’s often a good idea to ask students to choose. It gives them buy-in and lets them play to strengths or learn new skills from their peers–as they choose.


6 and 7. How do we know the students are learning? How do we assign grades?

First, the project should be aligned with the course goals. You should be able to look at the project and see in it a degree of expertise.

The first time you assign students a given project, you might not know what success and failure look like. But you can see the features as they emerge, and you can point the students to however it is you’ve defined the course goals.

  • “Demonstrate an understanding of” is wiggle verbiage: you should be able to provide some standards about what more and less robust performances look like–standards you can revise each time you teach a course.

Second, if there are other forms of assessment (like tests and exams), you can see if students whose projects were better also did better on exams.

  • It’s possible that project performance will mirror underlying knowledge.
  • But it’s also possible that project skills go so far beyond knowledge of the subject matter that projects represent “knowledge plus.”

It’s somewhat up to you to find out what the projects show about your students learning so you can decide what kind of weight to give to what kind of performance.

As for grading, some instructors give both individual and group grades.

  • They ask students to specify their roles: presentation wrangler, editor, project manager–whatever the students choose.
  • They ask students to evaluate both themselves and each other at regular intervals to decrease ‘freeriding.’

It can be a good idea to have the individual pieces be graded generously or merely to earn ‘points,’ also doled out generously.

  • Basically, if you put too much pressure on students during the work process, you may freeze them up, cause them to seek perfection, rather than focusing on learning.

In short, there are many kinds of authentic collaborative student projects, and at least seven big decisions to make. This pdf summarizes them.

How you make them depends on what’s important to you.

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