Designing the Course

For your convenience this chapter has been broken into three sections. This is perhaps the most important chapter in the book for planning your class so be sure to spend some time browsing it and looking at the examples across the sections. You can find some example materials–that we will reference often during orientation–in the Instructor Archive.

Scaffolding, the 131 Course OUtcomes, and Assignment Sequences

As discussed in the previous chapter, the English 131 curriculum is focused around the PWR’s four course outcomes. These outcomes articulate the goals of the course and the skills and practices students should engage with in their final portfolios. They will also play an important role as you design your course and evaluate student writing. As discussed in Chapter 2, a driving principle of these outcomes is an approach to writing as a situated, inquiry-based and generative practice. In other words, the outcomes foster writing that not only helps students develop and hone their thinking, but which also helps them move toward new and increasingly complex discoveries that emerge from ongoing conversations and pressing exigencies in various contexts. We believe these writing and thinking habits are integral to our students’ success at the University of Washington and beyond; our 131 assignments and course designs therefore deliberately support this trajectory. This chapter will focus on assignment and course design based on the educational principle of scaffolding.

Scaffolding is a practice of course and assignment design in which big learning goals are broken down into a series of smaller tasks or skills with increasing complexities that build upon one another to lead to the larger outcome.

Another way to understand the concept of scaffolding is as a skeletal structure that imparts and supports the learning objectives you have for your course. For example, if you ultimately want students to write a complex claim that has emerged from a line of inquiry, preceding assignments must guide students through the inquiry process in a way that continually complicates and adds new dimensions to their previous understanding of the topic. Or, if you want students to synthesize complex texts, they will first need to understand those texts in isolation—through summary and rhetorical analysis—before bringing them together to form an intertextual argument.

Scaffolding is built into 131 through the basic structure of assignment sequencing and portfolio assessment (please see Chapter 7 of this manual for more on portfolios). 131 consists of a number of assignment sequences. The most basic version of 131 consists of three assignment sequences:

Assignment Sequences consist of 2-4 assignments of varying lengths which build on each other and increase in complexity. Each sequence can be understood as targeting a set of skills or practices which build up to the learning outcomes of the course. Sequences are internally scaffolded and can also be scaffolded sequentially to build on each other.

  • The first two sequences, typically four weeks each, consist of two to four short assignments and one culminating (longer) assignment each, with each sequence generally drawing on a reading or a cluster of readings from the course textbook or selected by you. Both the short and the long assignments in each sequence target the learning expectations in the outcomes, and each should provide students with an opportunity to practice one or more of these traits in a way that builds as the quarter progresses. Throughout the quarter, instructors are also encouraged to highlight which trait(s) of the outcomes are accomplished by particular assignments. This transparency will allow students to take a more active role in scaffolding their own skills while also preparing them to think metacognitively about the work they are doing.
  • During approximately the last two weeks of the quarter, having completed two sequences, students will work on the third sequence, a final portfolio sequence. Here, students select three to five of their shorter assignments and one of their major assignments that they will use collectively to demonstrate their ability to meet the course outcomes. The selection process that guides this final sequence teaches students to self-assess their writing (one of the learning goals listed in Outcome 1). Along with selecting and revising papers, the portfolio also requires students to write a critical reflection, which is at the heart of the final two-week sequence. This reflection should argue for how the selected assignments demonstrate the four main learning outcomes.

This metacognitive practice—demonstrating one’s own writing awareness—can only happen if students have consistently worked with the outcomes throughout the quarter and are then asked to focus attention on their own writing practices now they have their own “evidence” to work with. Throughout the quarter, instructors are also encouraged to highlight which aspect(s) of the outcomes are accomplished by particular assignments. This transparency will allow students to take a more active role in scaffolding their own skills while also preparing them to think metacognitively about the work they are doing.

Important Note

The three-sequence model shared above has been tried and tested by many 131 instructors over the years. However, other forms of sequencing (with more or fewer assignments or sequences) are possible.
Please reach out to the Director, ADs, and/or resources in the instructor archive to view other forms of sequencing or to talk to us about ideas for sequencing that you may have.


Although students will need to have sufficient exposure to and practice with the course goals goals, there is no set way to incorporate these outcomes into your assignments and sequences. You might consider targeting a few outcomes per assignment, or you might want to designate a set of outcomes for each sequence. No matter how you decide to scaffold the learning goals, experience has shown that students’ success in the course (ultimately marked by their ability to knowledgeably and critically discuss their own writing habits and strategies) heavily depends on their being given opportunities to practice and reflect on these outcomes as they work through stages of your assignment sequences.

Where Do I Begin Designing My 131 Curriculum?

When scaffolding each sequence, it’s a good idea to work backwards. Start with what you want students to learn and accomplish in the final longer assignment of the sequence and then design a series of steps or stages that simultaneously ask students to perform tasks that build toward the final project while practicing various traits from the course outcomes. Although working backwards may seem counterintuitive, it allows you to identify all the reading and writing tasks that are embedded in the end assignment so that you can explicitly teach those tasks throughout the sequence. It is common for instructors to feel frustrated with students who can’t seem to write the major assignments that their prompts call for, but this is often the result of the student having not recognized the hidden literacy tasks they must have already accomplished in order to successfully complete the assignment.

As an instructor, you can never fully teach all the reading and writing skills that all students need in order to successfully complete the assignment, but there are a number of key literacy tasks that many students will not be familiar with.

Namely, students are likely to need explicit instruction in some or all the following areas:

  • building and complicating their claims and differentiating those claims from the traditional high school thesis statement (Specifically, students are usually much more adept at describing or comparing than they are at developing an argument.)
  • analyzing, synthesizing, and arguing
  • applying key terms from one context to another less familiar one
  • close/critical/rhetorical reading that connects texts to historical, cultural, or situational context
  • recognizing and evaluating assumptions
  • reasoning in college contexts—for example, what “counts” as evidence
  • returning to their claims throughout their papers, rather than just at the beginning and end
  • organizing beyond the limited two-page papers most of them have written
  • recognizing where explicit organizational structures are desirable and where they are not
  • becoming attentive to the differences in disciplinary approaches (i.e., the disciplinary assumptions of one article may not be the same as another article)
  • sustaining focus on the complex dynamics of rhetorical situation—particular audience expectations and genre conventions—as they write increasingly difficult arguments
  • revising beyond surface level error correction
  • identifying the stakes, both political and personal, for why writing matters in various contexts
  • critical reflection on their own writing (Specifically, students often need substantial practice talking about why and how they employed certain strategies and conventions in a given situation.)

For a more detailed explanation of specific types of assignments that target these goals while helping students practice various literacy tasks, please scroll to the end of this chapter.

Designing Assignment Sequences

Because the goal of our course is to help students develop an awareness of when and how to deploy certain writing strategies, it is important to be as deliberate as possible when designing assignments. The clarity of your assignment’s aims and requirements is helpful for students, but the explicit breakdown of assignments is also quite helpful for you as an instructor.

Assignment sequencing not only allows you to scaffold learning objectives for your students so that they learn new skills in stages, but it also allows for explicit explanation and practice of tasks, thereby breaking down expectations as assignments build towards a longer project.

For example, assignment prompts that explicitly describe such things as the genre, audience, source expectations, and outcomes targeted not only guide what you will teach the students prior to the assignment, but they also direct how you comment on and evaluate your students’ work. Explicit prompts can ease anxiety over lesson planning by setting boundaries for skills that need to be taught, and they can ease frustration when commenting on student papers by providing a rubric for what to comment on in the limited time you have set aside for doing so. The following questions can be used to guide your assignment design:

  1. What are the various skills, information, and capacities that students will need to complete the assignment? Which, among these, will I need to teach and introduce to students in the sequence and what might students already know?
  2. Why am I asking students to do this and what will they gain from this sequence?
  3. What prior experiences do students need to have to prepare them for this task?
  4. What will students do with these skills next, either in this course or in future professional and academic contexts?

Here, we present two approaches to sequencing assignments: cumulative sequence design and serial arrangement design.

When designing your course, each assignment within a sequence can be made to build on the tasks practiced in the preceding assignment. This type of sequence is sometimes called the cumulative sequence design, and these types of assignments generally move from simple to increasingly complex tasks. Generally, we encourage instructors of 131 to use the cumulative sequence because it provides the clearest (most explicit) trajectory for students and teachers to follow, though it is not the only way to scaffold assignments.

Another common type of sequence design is the serial arrangement. In this type of sequence, the short assignments all practice the various tasks that are called for in the longer assignment, but they do not lead to the major assignment in a vertical or hierarchical way. Although the serial sequence can be successful (and may be attractive in that, in some ways, it allows for more “creative” assignments), it is much more difficult to negotiate how learning will build from assignment to assignment. Often, instructors who choose to construct serial sequences need to pay even more attention to explicitly teaching the needed skills during class. No matter what type of design you choose, you will still need to consider how each stage of your sequence will target one or more of the course outcomes while helping students practice the skills they will need to succeed in composing the major assignment. It can be helpful to imagine your assignments broken down into stages; this may make the sequence more manageable during the design phase.

In the following, we map out one sample process that previous 131 instructors have found helpful when designing a sequence. Please note that there are many ways to approach scaffolding and sequence design, but this general trajectory has proven helpful for instructors in the past:

Sample Pathway for Sequence Design

Identify your main goal(s) for the sequence, which will be accomplished in the final assignment of that sequence. Goal(s) might include, for example:

  • researching using primary and secondary evidence and/or fieldwork
  • analyzing a cultural artifact through a theoretical lens;
  • composing in various genres (children’s books, concert flyer, cookbook) and writing an argument paper that analyzes the ideologies supportive of that genre;
  • composing a multimodal project that combines images and text to create a coherent argument about identity, space, or other social constructs;
  • understanding how a concept or theme changes depending on context, discipline, or line of inquiry; or
  • using one’s own writing as evidence to argue for the successful completion of 131.

Most often, instructors identify a sequence’s learning goals while choosing their course readings. Working through these at the same time allows you to both settle on themes you find engaging while remaining mindful of the course outcomes. It also ensures that you are having students read materials to practice a specific literacy skill rather than just gaining content.

Begin to craft a major assignment that combines the desired readings with the desired learning goals you have for your sequence. Be sure to highlight all the outcomes that the paper calls for. If the students are writing an argument essay, it is guaranteed that they will be engaging in aspects of every outcome.

Close read your major assignment prompt and imagine what a successful student paper will actually look like. From there, identify the skills and knowledges that are required to write it well. List these and relate them to the course outcomes.

Begin to craft the shorter assignments that will lead up to this longer one in relation to the list that resulted from your close read of the end assignment, and try to scaffold the tasks done in each assignment with ones practiced previously; the following guidelines for initial and intermediate design can help you come up with assignment types.

Be attentive to the amount of time you schedule in between each assignment. Perhaps the most common dilemma for first time instructors is time management. The quarter goes by quickly, and students’ lack of experience with these complex writing tasks may surprise you. Make sure to leave time for students to learn and practice the skills they need to fulfill your assignment. Therefore, we recommend the “less is more” approach. If, as the quarter progresses, you find that you haven’t planned enough, it’s easy to add elements to assignments or daily lessons.

Of course, this is only one process for developing effective sequences, and, like other writing you do, sequence design is a recursive process in which proficiency emerges from practice. We hope, however, that these steps will help you begin to develop a method for design that works best for you.

As you work backwards from your major assignment prompt, it is helpful to consider some general principles of sequence design. Here are some suggestions for working with early, middle, and later stages of a sequence. The key is that throughout the sequence you need to provide opportunities for students to learn the essential skills (rhetorical, argumentative, stylistic) necessary to complete each assignment in a way that builds on previous homework or in-class writings. For example, it isn’t enough to tell a student that he or she needs appropriate details in a reader response paper; you’ll need to provide explicit instruction demonstrating what that means.

Principles of Sequence Design

Although there are no cut and dry ways to develop a sequence, there are a few principles that tend to help students as they move through their writing. The following general suggestions to consider have been broken down into early, middle, and later stages. While they do not cover all the possible ways students tend to learn best, we alsoinclude some core practices that have been used by many successful writing teachers.

Early Stages of the Sequence

The early stages of an assignment sequence should allow ample time for introducing students to the designated course texts. They will need guidance and practice in reading and engaging with “texts,” which may include academic articles, literary pieces, public or academic spaces, rhetorical situations, visual imagery, everyday cultural artifacts, and so on. The strategies for critical reading described in Writer/Thinker/Maker are applicable to various reading occasions; here, the key is to explicitly teach the kinds of interpretive practices students will need to perform for this or later assignments. For example, asking a student to perform a rhetorical reading of an academic essay is much different than asking them to read and observe a public scene where texts circulate and organize people’s activity within that space. In both instances, a specific kind of reading is required, and this type of reading practice should both target one or more of the outcome traits and lay the groundwork for the work you want students to do in the intermediate stages.

While a number of assignments in the early stages of the writing sequence ask students to read and then react to or analyze a reading from the textbook, many teachers also like to begin sequences by engaging students’ personal beliefs and histories or by preceding abstract concepts from the reading with concrete, commonplace examples that the students can relate to. Both methods have proven useful and have a long history in the teaching of writing. Regardless of how you decide to start the sequence, by beginning with “reading” or by starting with your students’ experiences, the following questions may help as you design assignments for this beginning stage:

  • What are your expectations about students’ prior reading experiences?
  • How are you imagining those experiences as being situated both socially and culturally?
  • How will you accommodate their relative lack of experience with academic reading, reading rhetorical situations, reading cultural artifacts, or reading images through a critical and analytical lens?
  • How will you help students to advance their readings of the text before the intermediate writing assignments?
  • How will you use the readings to support the goals of writing in the course as well as anti-racist praxis?

Initial assignments can take a number of forms, as they provide an opportunity for students to practice skills necessary for later work. For example, if students are ultimately going to analyze University Ave. through the analytic of Mary Louise Pratt’s “contact zone,” they will need to have spent early assignments summarizing her essay and fleshing out this term before using it to analyze a new context.

Intermediate Stages of the Sequence

During the intermediate stages of the sequence, students typically compose texts that help develop an argument for their major assignment or practice some of the more complicated thinking necessary to making successful arguments. These middle parts of your sequence can be thought of as points of enrichment, moments at which students’ writing applies one concept to another; begins to examine multiple points of view; analyzes and evaluates evidence, etc. Enrichment here means making a complex claim as well as analyzing, synthesizing, and integrating new materials into short pieces of writing, which may include elements of primary and secondary research. It also means learning the key task of taking an idea from a text and applying it to a new situation—the single most common assignment type that students will be asked to complete in college classes, from the sciences and social sciences and in parts of the humanities. Students should be using the readings in this intermediate stage as well, not just extracting information from the texts, but distinguishing and evaluating the arguments made and then applying them to new texts, new materials, different audiences, and perhaps using different genres.

In addition, assignments in this intermediate stage might also ask students to think about the context in which texts are produced, ones they are reading or ones they are writing themselves. You can provide students with guided experience in developing arguments or analyzing evidence in a contextually bound way. For example, examining how a similar issue gets represented in different genres and for different audiences teaches students about the situatedness of writing and knowledge making, and ultimately helps them to understand their own writing as also existing with and being the product of cultural, historical, and rhetorical constraints. Through genre analysis, you can further invite students to think critically about the context in which they are composing and consider how they might integrate into and resist academic literacies that privilege particular forms of discourse.

Later Stages of the Sequence

In the later stages of the sequence, as you approach the major assignment, your shorter assignments can help students begin to develop complex arguments and articulate stakes. During this stage you might also turn your focus to self-editing, peer responses, and style and grammar. After students have developed their arguments and/or crafted their compositions, it can be useful to focus on rhetorical grammar, style, and other micro-level writing and design concerns (see Chapter 6 of this Manual). Putting too much emphasis on these elements before students have a complex argument that matters in academic contexts may stymie the thinking and writing process. Therefore, when and how we cue our students to error is important, and depends in part on our students’ needs, the number of drafts we have assigned, the degree to which the error interferes with our ability to assess our assignment’s targeted outcomes, and our philosophy as instructors.

During this latter part of the sequence, you may also want to encourage students to revisit earlier assignments in order to reflect on what they’ve learned and what will be valuable for the major paper. This is also the point at which students are often asked to consider their peers’ and instructors’ responses to their work and to decide what needs to be addressed from their feedback. Many instructors build in-class time for discussing revision strategies and make revision an explicit part of the assignment. Most of our students have had some experience with “revising” papers, but their revisions may have amounted to nothing more than “fixing” spelling and grammatical errors while leaving substantive changes in reasoning, understanding of the issues, and structural change out of the process altogether. Research in revision suggests effective revision requires altering the task so that the writer “re-sees” the work. Therefore, during the later stages, you should continue to spend time teaching students how to read your comments (in the form of Writer’s Memos or Revision Plans—for more on evaluating and responding to student writing, see Chapter Eight of the Manual) and how to comment on their peers’ papers, both of which will ultimately lead to portfolio revisions that rethink the content of the paper rather than merely focusing on surface errors.

Hopefully, you will be able to make use of some or all of these suggestions as you design your sequence. But, even if these nuances are not integrated for you until later teaching quarters, one thing to remember when creating a sequence is that if you want to see a particular aspect of writing appear in the student work, you will need to devote class time to teaching them how to produce it and a chance to practice it.

The following questions may help you as you think about connecting papers with daily lesson plans:

  • What activities have I planned that directly support the students’ preparation of drafts?
  • How have I coordinated the timing of peer readings with submission dates for drafts?
  • What writing will students do in response to drafts that will help them, as the outcomes state, to “demonstrate substantial and successful revision” within their final copy? What flexible strategies will I help students develop for revising, editing, and proofreading writing?
  • How will I maintain the focus on writing on days when the class works with the reading or research? Specifically, what in-class writing activities will I assign?
  • How do these activities help students think more critically about language toward anti-racist praxis?
  • How will I emphasize the ultimate importance of each of these activities?
  • What activities will I include that involve student participation?



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2023 English 131 Instructors Manual Copyright © 2022 by kersch is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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