Research Paper Scaffold Read Write

Student Objectives

Session 1: Research Question

Session 2: Literature Review—Search

Session 3: Literature Review—Notes

Session 4: Analysis

Session 5: Original Research

Session 6: Results (optional)

Session 7: Conclusion

Session 8: References and Writing Final Draft

Student Assessment/Reflections



Students will

  • Formulate a clear thesis that conveys a perspective on the subject of their research

  • Practice research skills, including evaluation of sources, paraphrasing and summarizing relevant information, and citation of sources used

  • Logically group and sequence ideas in expository writing

  • Organize and display information on charts, maps, and graphs

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Session 1: Research Question

1.Distribute copies of the Example Research Paper Scaffold and Example Student Research Paper, and read the model aloud with students. Briefly discuss how this research paper works to answer the question, How does color affect mood? The example helps students clearly see how a research question leads to a literature review, which in turn leads to analysis, original research, results, and conclusion.

2.Pass out copies of the Research Paper Scaffold. Explain to students that the procedures involved in writing a research paper follow in order, and each section of the scaffold builds upon the previous one. Briefly describe how each section will be completed during subsequent sessions.

3.Explain that in this session the students’ task is to formulate a research question and write it on the scaffold. Note: The most important strategy in using this model is that students be allowed, within the assigned topic framework, to ask their own research questions. Allowing students to choose their own questions gives them control over their own learning, so they are motivated to “solve the case,” to persevere even when the trail runs cold or the detective work seems unexciting.

4.Introduce the characteristics of a good research question. Explain that in a broad area such as political science, psychology, geography, or economics, a good question needs to focus on a particular controversy or perspective. Some examples include:
  • Why did Martin Luther King Jr. deserve the Nobel Peace Prize?

  • How has glass affected human culture?

  • What is the history of cheerleading?
Explain that students should take care not to formulate a research question so broad that it cannot be answered, or so narrow that it can be answered in a sentence or two.

5.Note that a good question always leads to more questions. Invite students to suggest additional questions resulting from the examples above and from the Example Research Paper Scaffold.

6.Emphasize that good research questions are open-ended. Open-ended questions can be solved in more than one way and, depending upon interpretation, often have more than one correct answer, such as the question, Can virtue be taught? Closed questions have only one correct answer, such as, How many continents are there in the world? Open-ended questions are implicit and evaluative, while closed questions are explicit. Have students identify possible problems with these research questions
  • Why do people’s moods change? (too broad)

  • Why do doctors traditionally wear white?
    This question is too narrow for a five-page paper as it can be answered in just a few words.

  • How does color affect mood? (open-ended)
    This is broader, yet not so large that it would run over the five-page requirement.
7.Instruct students to fill in the first section of the Research Paper Scaffold, the Research Question, before Session 2. This task can be completed in a subsequent class session or assigned as homework. Allowing a few days for students to refine and reflect upon their research question is best practice. Explain that the next section, the Hook, should not be filled in at this time, as it will be completed using information from the literature search.

You should approve students’ final research questions before Session 2. You may also wish to send home the Permission Form with students, to make parents aware of their child’s research topic and the project due dates.

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Session 2: Literature Review—Search

Prior to this session, you may want to introduce or review Internet search techniques using the lesson Inquiry on the Internet: Evaluating Web Pages for a Class Collection. You may also wish to consult with the school librarian regarding subscription databases designed specifically for student research, which may be available through the school or public library. Using these types of resources will help to ensure that students find relevant and appropriate information. Using Internet search engines such as Google can be overwhelming to beginning researchers.

1.Introduce this session by explaining that students will collect five articles that help to answer their research question. Once they have printed out or photocopied the articles, they will use a highlighter to mark the sections in the articles that specifically address the research question. This strategy helps students focus on the research question rather than on all the other interesting—yet irrelevant—facts that they will find in the course of their research.

2.Point out that the five different articles may offer similar answers and evidence with regard to the research question, or they may differ. The final paper will be more interesting if it explores different perspectives.

3.Demonstrate the use of any relevant subscription databases that are available to students through the school, as well as any Web directories or kid-friendly search engines (such as KidzSearch) that you would like them to use.

4.Remind students that their research question can provide the keywords for a targeted Internet search. The question should also give focus to the research—without the research question to anchor them, students may go off track.

5.Explain that information found in the articles may lead students to broaden their research question. A good literature review should be a way of opening doors to new ideas, not simply a search for the data that supports a preconceived notion.

6.Make students aware that their online search results may include abstracts, which are brief summaries of research articles. In many cases the full text of the articles is available only through subscription to a scholarly database. Provide examples of abstracts and scholarly articles so students can recognize that abstracts do not contain all the information found in the article, and should not be cited unless the full article has been read.

7.Emphasize that students need to find articles from at least five different reliable sources that provide “clues” to answering their research question. Internet articles need to be printed out, and articles from print sources need to be photocopied. Each article used on the Research Paper Scaffold needs to yield several relevant facts, so students may need to collect more than five articles to have adequate sources.

8.Remind students to gather complete reference information for each of their sources. They may wish to photocopy the title page of books where they find information, and print out the homepage or contact page of websites.

9.Allow students at least a week for research. Schedule time in the school media center or the computer lab so you can supervise and assist students as they search for relevant articles. Students can also complete their research as homework.

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Session 3: Literature Review—Notes

Students need to bring their articles to this session. For large classes, have students highlight relevant information (as described below) and submit the articles for assessment before beginning the session.

1.Have students find the specific information in each article that helps answer their research question, and highlight the relevant passages. Check that students have correctly identified and marked relevant information before allowing them to proceed to the Literature Review section on the Research Paper Scaffold.

2.Instruct students to complete the Literature Review section of the Research Paper Scaffold, including the last name of the author and the publication date for each article (to prepare for using APA citation style).

3.Have students list the important facts they found in each article on the lines numbered 1–5, as shown on the Example Research Paper Scaffold. Additional facts can be listed on the back of the handout. Remind students that if they copy directly from a text they need to put the copied material in quotation marks and note the page number of the source. Note: Students may need more research time following this session to find additional information relevant to their research question.

4.Explain that interesting facts that are not relevant for the literature review section can be listed in the section labeled Hook. All good writers, whether they are writing narrative, persuasive, or expository text, need to engage or “hook” the reader’s interest. Facts listed in the Hook section can be valuable for introducing the research paper.

5.Use the Example Research Paper Scaffold to illustrate how to fill in the first and last lines of the Literature Review entry, which represent topic and concluding sentences. These should be filled in only after all the relevant facts from the source have been listed, to ensure that students are basing their research on facts that are found in the data, rather than making the facts fit a preconceived idea.

6.Check students’ scaffolds as they complete their first literature review entry, to make sure they are on track. Then have students complete the other four sections of the Literature Review Section in the same manner.

Checking Literature Review entries on the same day is best practice, as it gives both you and the student time to plan and address any problems before proceeding. Note that in the finished product this literature review section will be about six paragraphs, so students need to gather enough facts to fit this format.

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Session 4: Analysis

1.Explain that in this session students will compare the information they have gathered from various sources to identify themes.

2.Explain the process of analysis using the Example Research Paper Scaffold. Show how making a numbered list of possible themes, drawn from the different perspectives proposed in the literature, can be useful for analysis. In the Example Research Paper Scaffold, there are four possible explanations given for the effects of color on mood. Remind students that they can refer to the Example Student Research Paper for a model of how the analysis will be used in the final research paper.

3.Have students identify common themes and possible answers to their own research question by reviewing the topic and concluding sentences in their literature review. Students may identify only one main idea in each source, or they may find several. Instruct students to list the ideas and summarize their similarities and differences in the space provided for Analysis on the scaffold.

4.Check students’ Analysis section entries to make sure they have included theories that are consistent with their literature review. Return the Research Paper Scaffolds to students with comments and corrections. Note: In the finished research paper, the analysis section will be about one paragraph.

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Session 5: Original Research

Students should design some form of original research appropriate to their topics, but they do not necessarily have to conduct the experiments or surveys they propose. Depending on the appropriateness of the original research proposals, the time involved, and the resources available, you may prefer to omit the actual research or use it as an extension activity.

1.During this session, students formulate one or more possible answers to the research question (based upon their analysis) for possible testing. Invite students to consider and briefly discuss the following questions:
  • How can you tell whether the ideas you are reading are true?

  • If there are two or more solutions to a problem, which one is the best?

  • Researchers verify the validity of their findings by devising original research to test them, but what kind of test works best in a given situation?
2.Explain the difference between qualitative and quantitative research. Quantitative methods involve the collection of numeric data, while qualitative methods focus primarily on the collection of observable data. Quantitative studies have large numbers of participants and produce a large collection of data (such as results from 100 people taking a 10-question survey). Qualitative methods involve few participants and rely upon the researcher to serve as a “reporter” who records direct observations of a specific population. Qualitative methods involve more detailed interviews and artifact collection.

3.Point out that each student’s research question and analysis will determine which method is more appropriate. Show how the research question in the Example Research Paper Scaffold goes beyond what is reported in a literature review and adds new information to what is already known.

4.Outline criteria for acceptable research studies, and explain that you will need to approve each student’s plan before the research is done. The following criteria should be included:
  • The test needs to be “doable” within the time frame allotted (usually one to two weeks).

  • The test must be safe, both physically and mentally, for those involved. This means no unsupervised, dangerous experiments.

  • Parental approval should be obtained (see Permission Form).

  • The number of subjects should be kept to multiples of 10, so it is easier to report the data statistically.

  • If the research involves a survey
  • An equal number of male and female participants should be included if possible.

  • A wide range of ages should be included if possible.

  • The survey should have no more than 10 questions.

  • The survey form should include an introduction that states why the survey is being conducted and what the researcher plans to do with the data.
5.Inform students of the schedule for submitting their research plans for approval and completing their original research. Students need to conduct their tests and collect all data prior to Session 6. Normally it takes one day to complete research plans and one to two weeks to conduct the test.

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Session 6: Results (optional)

1.If students have conducted original research, instruct them to report the results from their experiments or surveys. Quantitative results can be reported on a chart, graph, or table. Qualitative studies may include data in the form of pictures, artifacts, notes, and interviews. Study results can be displayed in any kind of visual medium, such as a poster, PowerPoint presentation, or brochure.

2.Check the Results section of the scaffold and any visuals provided for consistency, accuracy, and effectiveness.

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Session 7: Conclusion

1.Explain that the Conclusion to the research paper is the student’s answer to the research question. This section may be one to two paragraphs. Remind students that it should include supporting facts from both the literature review and the test results (if applicable).

2.Encourage students to use the Conclusion section to point out discrepancies and similarities in their findings, and to propose further studies. Discuss the Conclusion section of the Example Research Paper Scaffold from the standpoint of these guidelines.

3.Check the Conclusion section after students have completed it, to see that it contains a logical summary and is consistent with the study results.

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Session 8: References and Writing Final Draft

1.Show students how to create a reference list of cited material, using a model such as American Psychological Association (APA) style, on the Reference section of the scaffold.

2.Distribute copies of the Internet Citation Checklist and have students refer to the handout as they list their reference information in the Reference section of the scaffold. Check students’ entries as they are working to make sure they understand the format correctly.

3.Have students access the citation site you have bookmarked on their computers. Demonstrate how to use the template or follow the guidelines provided, and have students create and print out a reference list to attach to their final research paper.

4.Explain to students that they will now use the completed scaffold to write the final research paper using the following genre-specific strategies for expository writing:
  • Use active, present tense verbs when possible.

  • Avoid the use of personal pronouns such as I and my (unless the research method was qualitative).

  • Cite all sources.
5.Distribute copies of the Research Paper Scoring Rubric and go over the criteria so that students understand how their final written work will be evaluated.

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  • Observe students’ participation in the initial stages of the Research Paper Scaffold and promptly address any errors or misconceptions about the research process.

  • Observe students and provide feedback as they complete each section of the Research Paper Scaffold.

  • Provide a safe environment where students will want to take risks in exploring ideas. During collaborative work, offer feedback and guidance to those who need encouragement or require assistance in learning cooperation and tolerance.

  • Involve students in using the Research Paper Scoring Rubric for final evaluation of the research paper. Go over this rubric during Session 8, before they write their final drafts.

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This post is part of the 2016 Writing about Art series on AHTR Weekly.


One of the staples of any upper-level art history course is the research paper. These papers can range from deep dives into one work of art from a local collection to thematic explorations that traverse various styles and media. When done well, these assignments can be a true intellectual pleasure. They afford the opportunity for students to explore individual topics of interest and demonstrate competence with course concepts and theories. When done poorly, the research paper can feel like a chore, a last-minute hodgepodge of mediocre sources that students hate to write almost as much as we hate to read. Nevertheless, to my feeling (and to many institutional requirements), scrapping these papers is simply not an option.

We can, however, take steps to increase the incidence of pleasurable and rewarding research papers and decrease the dreaded end-of-term chores. One strategy I have found to be particularly effective is what is now commonly called “scaffolding.” While this term seems on the surface to be one more meaningless buzzword in a long list of corporate analogies seeping into higher education, it is actually an established theory in educational psychology defined as “a reciprocal feedback process…with the goal of providing the kind of conceptual support that enables the learner, over time, to be able to work with the task, content or idea independently.” When employed correctly in a final research project, scaffolding can build papers upon solid foundations that soar to previously unimagined heights.

While one of the best means of producing strong research papers is a clear and thoughtful prompt (a topic covered in many useful AHTR posts already), in the below I outline how best to scaffold your assignment once your parameters for possible topics are set. This process, like actual scaffolding, is adaptable to whatever final project you wish to construct. Built into my method are examples of soft, hard, and reciprocal scaffolding. Soft scaffolding involves dynamic instructor feedback tailored to each student’s needs; hard scaffolding is built into the design of the assignment; and reciprocal scaffolding involves peer feedback.

The actual scaffold: breaking down the assignment

The basic means of scaffolding projects is to break down a large assignment into smaller steps, building one upon another. The assignments are spread throughout the term, encouraging students to manage their time effectively and to refine their thinking on a topic, and allowing you to flag any potential issues. Typically, my research assignments include five basic steps:

  1. Topic proposal and preliminary bibliography
  2. Detailed annotated bibliography (with primary and secondary sources)
  3. Rough draft and/or outline
  4. Formal oral presentation with visual content
  5. Final revised paper

At each step, I provide feedback and notes to direct students towards more rigorous thesis statements, quality sources, and clear writing. Keep in mind that the goal of the scaffolded project is to make the end of semester grading more pleasurable, not to create an insurmountable mountain of work. Depending on the size of the class, the nature of each step could change.

For example, I may assign a detailed outline or a complete rough draft depending on length of paper, class size, and schedule. In small classes the rough draft stage may include individual or small group paper conferences; in large very ones, I may double-up on structured peer critique (see below), given that I may not have time to turn around all of the drafts in time myself. In all classes, it is also advisable to make use of one-on-one interactions through office hours or campus writing centers as a resource for students to consult. Bottom line: scaffolded projects can be part of any size class without placing undue burdens on the instructor or patronizing students.

Additional supports: peer review and input

To me, reciprocal scaffolding is one of the most important parts of this type of project. It provides an additional form of support beyond the instructor and generates a sense of ownership for each student’s topic throughout the term. Furthermore, each step promotes a supportive and lively classroom, which carries over into class discussion and group projects. There are a number of ways to incorporate peer feedback, and I include possible activities for the first four steps below. Which ones become a part of a particular syllabus depends on both the size of the class and the extent to which the course schedule allows time for peer-to-peer interaction.

  1. Hold a roundtable for project proposals.This is an idea I definitely stole from graduate seminars, but I’ve found undergraduates take very well to the process. Move the chairs into a seminar-style circle and have each student read their proposal to the group, allowing for conversation between each proposal.
  2. Prior to the annotated bibliography due date, have students bring in three physical books on their topic.This is particularly important with first year students, who often rely far too heavily on online resources. This activity requires students to actually visit the campus library and provides opportunity for partner work. Divide the students up into pairs and ask each student to provide a clear and specific description of their topic on the top of a piece of paper. Switch papers and books, and ask students to locate two useful sentences, arguments, or pages in each book for their partner to use. This assignment seems odd, but it reinforces skills in skimming and scanning resources and promotes discussion at the research stage.
  3. Set aside a day for peer review of drafts. Break the students into pairs and have them read through and mark-up their partner’s draft and fill out a worksheet detailing what they thought the paper was about as well as how effective its argument, language, and sources were. (See here for a sample worksheet.) Allow for discussion after. If time allows, or if your class size prohibits you from reading drafts, you may wish to do this twice so that each paper has two reviewers.
  4. Leave time for Q&A after each formal presentation. At this point, the students are very familiar with each other’s work and should be comfortable asking questions and even critiquing arguments and evidence. By making the final paper due after the presentations, this Q&A period is further cast as a supportive time to help one’s peers write the best paper possible.

Accountability: grading scaffolded projects

In order for a scaffolded project to work, each step must be factored into the final project grade. A typical breakdown for one of my assignments might weigh the steps as follows:

Proposal and preliminary bibliography: 5%

Annotated Bibliography: 10%

Rough Draft/Outline: 10%*

Formal Presentation: 15%

Final Paper: 60%

*A note on grading rough drafts: for a variety of reasons, I am against assigning an actual letter grade to drafts. I believe they should simply be no credit, half credit, or full credit. Otherwise a student who receives a high grade on the rough draft might not take the revision process seriously, which is central to the entire concept of assignment scaffolding.

This breakdown does two things: first, it requires students to complete each step, as missing any part will significantly lower the overall project grade. Second, it raises the stakes at each step, allowing for early inquiry to be relatively low-stakes and rewarding improvement following your feedback. The final output (the completed paper), like a newly-constructed building after the removal of scaffolding, “stands on its own” in the weighing of the final project.

In addition to the sample percentage breakdown above, another way to ensure the scaffolding process works is to include revisions in your grading process. This is where online platforms like Canvas, Blackboard, and Moodle are particularly useful in their ability to store every document submitted for the project in a place you can easily reference.

The grade for the final version of the paper, for example, could be broken down as follows: 30% for quality of argument, 30% for research and citation, 30% for prose and organization, and 10% for quality of revisions. This encourages the stronger writers to revise their papers rather than glide by on a strong first draft and helps the hardworking but struggling writers by rewarding genuine effort. I also frequently offer more points to revised annotated bibliographies if students find better sources (frequently replacing unscholarly websites or finding required primary sources).

Of course, how one chooses to grade final projects is completely an individual decision and indeed part of our separate teaching styles. However, thinking about how the scaffolded project will play out on the Excel sheet is important to making the process work for both students and professors.

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