Working in the ZPD: Supporting Students Through a Writing Project

When I was asked to lead a Community of Practice event, I enthusiastically accepted.  Having the chance to reflect on this topic and lead a workshop as an adjunct is something that I take seriously because I know the commitment we make to our students and the desire we have to continue improving our own instruction.  As the date approached, however, the familiar anxiety started to creep in.  (Anxiety compounded with the sea of papers and midterms!  We all know the struggle…  We can do this, my friends.)  Anyway, as I was saying, when I was a student, I always felt an *almost* debilitating anxiety when I had to write even though I have always excelled in academics.  My friends and classmates would shrug it off because they *knew* I would receive high marks, but I never had that confidence, so I worked hard and tried to control my anxiety.  I didn’t have a clear understanding of what every professor wanted in my writing, but I wrote to the best of my ability, often in a rushed late-night session.  Luckily, it turned out well.  (Shhh… Don’t tell my students!)  This personal struggle with anxiety and without explicit guidance is something that I discuss with my students, and it is one of the reasons that I spend so much time attending to the affective needs of students while also organizing and developing activities that address critical thinking, personal growth, and the writing process. 

For our conversation this month, I chose Raymond Wlodkowski’s Enhancing Adult Motivation to Learn: A Comprehensive Guide for Teaching All Adults.  The text resonated with me because it takes adult learners seriously and navigates the overlap between pedagogy and andragogy in a way that makes sense. Malcolm Knowles, the educator who named and popularized andragogy in the United States in the 1950s, talks about adults wanting to be “seen and treated by others as capable of self-direction” (qtd. in Wlodkowski 97).  Our students are adults; they want and have agency, but they also need direction.  Most plead, “Just tell me what to do!” at the beginning of the semester.  There is a delicate balance between their need for agency and their desire for strict requirements, and we look forward to hearing how each of you navigate this balance and what has worked and what hasn’t always worked.  When thinking about writing projects, my team and I considered the larger 1A research paper but also the smaller writing projects that require research and the in-class writing projects.  We also considered how “support” is woven into this academic conversation.

We all understand the demands that our community college students carry.  Whether we know about each student’s individual story or not, we need to be aware of how past learning experiences and financial and familial burdens affect the success of our students.  Most of our students are underserved, and it is our responsibility to recognize and honor their commitment and choice to attend our institution.  As Luke Woods, Co-Director of the Community College Equity Assessment Lab (CCEAL), discussed at the RCCD Student Equity Summit last year, “every registration is an act of trust.”  For this reason, we need to understand what motivates our students, what they want from us, and how we can get what we and the college want from them. 

The skills that we need to hone, according to Wlodkowski, are expertise, empathy, enthusiasm, clarity, and cultural responsiveness.  Fundamentally, we need to honor our students’ perspectives and experiences, and we need to be organized and enthusiastic about our field.  If we cannot inspire the students and clearly articulate the concepts we need them to learn, they will lose interest.  We need to help them see how that particular essay will help in their life outside of the classroom; sometimes the content is what might apply to the outside world, while other times it is the writing skill or critical thinking itself.  For myself, I organize my class around a larger umbrella term of social justice and identity, and each paper includes key learning outcomes and writing strategies that slowly build on one another.  While I let my students vote on topics at least two times in the semester, I always have a vision of what writing and rhetorical strategies I will ask them to engage with for every larger writing assignment.  This helps me address all the skills listed above to the best of my ability. 

A point that I think is particularly relevant to our discussions around AB 705 is one of the hazards Wlodkowski links to lack of enthusiasm: “You are having an attack of the good-old-days bug.  The learners aren’t as good as they used to be.  The instructional conditions have deteriorated.  You see things as they once were.  You feel depressed.  You tell yourself things will not get better” (76- 77).  While we all have debated about AB705 and what this means in our classroom, his warning should be heeded.  If we begin romanticizing the mythical good ol’ days, we will project that same distress and frustration to our students.  Just as we need to address their own negative self-doubts and attitudes, we need to look inward and do the same with ourselves.  These are our students, and this is our task.  We must continue growing and encouraging our students to do the same.

Students need four motivational conditions in the college setting: inclusion, attitude, meaning, and competence (102).  Basically, our students need to feel that the classroom is a safe zone for them to express their positions without being attacked.  Related to this idea is the relationship not simply between the instructor and the students, but also between the students themselves.  In their journals, students in my classes talk about the friendships they formed in the classroom and about the peers who helped them understand topics when they were struggling.  (I integrate peer reviews and discussions from the first week of class to foster the academic and personal growth of every student in that room.) In addition to often fearing the professor in the classroom, many of our students are also fighting loneliness and isolation.  This is not separate from our teaching in my eyes.  We need to attend to the affective needs because if students are struggling emotionally, they will struggle to prioritize or find meaning in attending college and taking our English classes. 

Students need help with that in whatever form we feel comfortable providing, but they also need to see that what they are doing is relevant and meaningful.  For me, this means repeating the rationale behind my prewriting activities and reminding them that they can succeed in this course.  (It also means allowing conversations that deviate from the assigned task for a few minutes at the end of class.)  I don’t expect the students to understand why I am having them write a reflection when we first begin writing metacognitive reflections.  I make that link for all of them the first couple of times, and they slowly start doing that without much guidance with subsequent papers.  Wlodkowski says, “New learning often asks them [students] to become temporarily dependent, to open their minds to new ideas, to rethink certain beliefs, and to try different ways of doing things.  This may be threatening or difficult for them, and their attitudes can easily lock in to support their resistance” (176).  We honor that dependence and trust by being aware of *how* learning happens and what stumbling blocks might appear along the way and modifying our instruction accordingly.

Visual representation of Vygotsky’s zones of development

According to Lev Vygotsky, a leading theorist in social constructivism, there are three zones of learning, and providing scaffolding and support during our writing projects is how we can tap into and strengthen this learning.  The zone of actual development (ZAD) is where students have mastered the required skills and are then in their comfort zone.  This is where some of our independent students are found, and this is where we want all of our students to be by the end of our classes.  We want them comfortable with research, MLA, thesis statements, essay construction, etc.  Their mastery of the skills makes up our learning outcomes.  Most of our students are fluctuating between the zone of eventual development (ZED) and the zone of proximal development (ZPD).  In the ZED, or anxiety zone, students are unable to understand our lessons even with our scaffolding and support.  As Wlodkowski asserts, “If the learning tasks are well beyond their current skills or prior knowledge, people will not be able to accomplish them, no matter how motivated they are” (6).  What we will focus on is the ZPD, or the reach zone.  Working in the ZPD entails using a variety of scaffolding techniques.  This includes the following:

  • Modeling
  • Anticipating difficulties
  • Providing prompts and cues
  • Using dialogue and discussion
  • Regulating the difficulty
  • Providing a checklist
  • Using reciprocal teaching and practice. ( Wlodkowski 184- 86)

In order to scaffold learning effectively, we need to distribute responsibility increasingly on the student.  In my own classes, I limit the choices and structure of the first two essays, and then I invite students to take initiative.  I have explicit and somewhat rigid guidelines in order to help them feel prepared to take on the writing task.  I don’t want them to struggle with the writing assignment because they have unclear learning objectives and requirements.  Pre-writing activities combined with a writing checklist and outline template let them know exactly what I want them to focus on for each essay.  Later in the semester, while I am covering important rhetorical and writing skills in class, I let them take more initiative with the writing. Finally, I link all my writing assignments to the assigned essay and the future research project that culminates the class.

While we consider our scaffolding techniques, we also need to be aware of students’ own emotional states.  The anxiety that I—and I assume many of you—struggled with is something I see mirrored in most of my students.  It is why I actively and intentionally explain my rationale for activities in the classroom and the WRC, and why I talk to students directly when I see them expressing frustration or confusion in class or in their writing.  Taking the academic and affective dimensions into account, we can begin to discuss how to support our students through writing projects.

Questions to consider:

  • Where do you draw the line or how do you distinguish between coddling and scaffolding for our college students?
  • Where do your students struggle most with writing assignments?  What steps do you take for the class as a whole?  How do you direct students to address their own writing issues on an individual level?
  • How do you scaffold each writing project that you assign? How do you deconstruct the prompt? Do you slowly provide more freedom for students or is creativity something that you highlight from day one?
  • How much agency do you give your students with writing projects?
  • How do you ensure that students are understanding what is required in their writing and that they are improving on those skills?

Additional texts that I read in conjunction with Wlodkowski’s work:

  • Felicia Darling, Teachin’ It!  Breakout Moves that Breakdown Barriers for Community College Students.
  • Elizabeth Barkley, Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty.
  • Advancing Black Male Student Success from Preschool to Ph.D.  Edited by Shaun R. Harper and J. Luke Wood.