I recently took a canoe paddle-making course with my son from an instructor who guaranteed that all participants would come away with a result that they could be proud of. One of the ways he ensured this was by giving us various “scaffolds” at different points in the process that helped us channel our work in the proper direction. Instead of starting with unformed wood, we were given pieces that already had the broad cuts made in them. This allowed us to concentrate on the detailing that forms the real heart of paddle-making. At each step we were provided with the proper tools and clear instructions needed to complete the job. As advertised, we all walked away with a result we were proud of and a deep understanding of the paddle-making process.
Good teaching often involves scaffolding learning. Unfortunately, teachers often forget this. As an undergraduate I was generally given assignments with no more direction than to write a paper of X length on Y topic. This leads many students to head off in entirely the wrong direction from the get-go. Failing miserably like this does nothing to teach and only produces discouragement. Faculty sometimes think that scaffolding is “doing the assignment for the student,” but it is not. It is providing the student with the tools needed to succeed.
Scaffolding comes in two forms. Conceptual scaffolds provide the learner with help knowing “what to consider,” such as what to look for in a reading (Hannafin, Land, and Oliver 1999), whereas strategic scaffolds help learners complete specific tasks, such as writing a paper. Let's take a closer look at each.
Students often do not know what they should be getting out of a reading. Faculty can help direct students to the correct content by providing a list of questions that students should consider as they do their readings. For instance, the questions can track the argument turns in the work so that the students are able to follow the writer's thinking, as well as learn that the argument structure is what they should be reading for. The scaffolding also helps students learn how to take notes on their own.
While the questions can be added to the assignment directions, students often forget those questions once they get into the weeds of the reading. A more effective method is to provide some sort of response system that requires students to answer the questions during or after the reading.
One option I use is to provide assignments as PDFs with fillable forms. I include not only the directions, but questions for students to answer right on the form while doing the reading. A PDF works better than a Word document because entering information into a Word document will shift the rest of the text. To make a fillable PDF, write out the assignment as a Word document and draw in text boxes after each question. Then convert the document to a PDF using Adobe Acrobat or another PDF conversion tool. Make sure to indicate that you are saving it at a PDF with “text enabled fields,” and the system will convert the boxes to fillable forms.
The questions need not be graded, though students can be told that they will lose points for not answering them. The goal is just to get students thinking during their reading, which will help with student understanding and knowledge retention. Plus, the instructor can use the responses to identify where students are struggling and may need additional help.
Faculty can also provide some general context and information about the argument in a work as a head start to the student's reading. Many faculty expect students to do a reading before class and come prepared to discuss it. But in a sense this is backwards, because students will get more out of a reading if they are given some information about it first that will help them understand it. Faculty should first discuss the arguments in a reading during class, and then provide students with questions that they can answer while doing the reading to help them know what to get for out of it. Now students have a scaffold that will ensure that they understand the material and learn what the instructor intended them to.
Online faculty can also scaffold student understanding of course content. I use short videos to deliver content that I create for my online course. I scaffold student viewing of my videos by putting the videos into Google Forms, with each video followed by a question that the student must answer. Student answers get compiled into a spreadsheet that is automatically created in Drive. Then I can view the answers for each student or the entire class at once. This ensures that students watch the videos and engage with the material and also alerts me to common problems that they are having with the concepts. As teachers we often do not get direct feedback on how students are understanding a particular work, and these sorts of exercises can help us revise content to improve student comprehension. It is interesting how often I discover that students are getting something different out of my material than I expected.
Students can also benefit from strategic scaffolds that guide them in completing an activity. Instead of just asking for a paper of a specific length, the instructor can specify the structure of the paper with instructions such as “Provide an introduction that covers. . . [or] Provide a summary of the author's two main points on. . . ” (Ifenthaler 2012). These questions help track the students' thinking through a process.
Another option is to provide a step-by-step guide to a process. For instance, when given a physics problem, students can be told: “First determine which of the conservation of energy principles applies to the problem. Then . . . ” In this case, students are starting at the right place and using the correct process to work through the problem, just as we were given the correct process to make our canoe paddles.
This exercise also helps make student thinking visible. Often faculty only see the product of student work, and thus cannot locate the error in the process that led to that product. For instance, a chemistry instructor might find that a student's problem is in identifying the correct principle to apply to the situation rather than in doing the math wrong on a formula. With this knowledge, the instructor knows what to work on with the student. Strategic scaffolding also cultivates students' metacognition about their own thinking process, and self-awareness of one's own thinking process has been identified as one of the most important drivers of learning.
Of course, the degree of scaffolding depends upon the level of student competence. Any assignment assumes some prior knowledge on the part of the student. The goal is to set the scaffolding just above this baseline to move the student up to the next level.
The instructor could also start the course with quite a bit of scaffolding, or scaffold at a fairly low conceptual level, and then gradually diminish the scaffolding or put it at a higher level so that it is always just above the students' current understanding. In this way the instructor gradually draws the students up in skill level. In this way scaffolding can be one of the most effective tools in an instructor's teaching toolbox.
Hannafin, M., Land, S., & Oliver, K. (1999). Open learning environments: Foundations, methods and models. In C. M. Reigeluth (Ed.), Instructional-design theories and models: A new paradigm of instructional theory (Vol. 2; pp. 115-140)., Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Ifenthaler, D. (2012). Determining the effectiveness of prompts for self-regulated learning in problem-solving scenarios. Educational Technology & Society, 15(i. 1), 38–52.
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