Scaffolding

Scaffold – CC0 Public Domain
Scaffold – CC0 Public Domain

What does scaffolding mean (in education)? This is the question I was asked recently during a meeting with a group of colleagues. I think this is a term that many of us have been using and taking for granted. Some entering careers in instructional design may not completely understand what the word means. I am finding that many of the folks I have been working with recently have not had the opportunity to teach a course of their own. Many instructional designers are working with faculty and subject matter experts that teach and have been for many years. So, when this question came up…we hit the brakes and had a conversation about scaffolding and shared some examples.

In the field of education, the term scaffolding refers to a process in which teachers model or demonstrate how to solve a problem, and then step back, offering support as needed. Psychologist and instructional designer Jerome Bruner first used the term scaffolding in this context back in the 1960s. The theory is that when students are given the support they need while learning something new, they stand a better chance of using that knowledge independently. Bruner recommends positive interaction and three modes of representation during teaching: actions, images, and language.

When leading in-person courses faculty may do a lot of modeling without even knowing that they are doing just that. For example, when faculty show how to solve a mathematical equation, they explain their thought process along the way. When faculty share examples, they are showing how to connect concepts for a deeper understanding. And, when faculty ask critical questions, they are modeling how those in that discipline make sense of theories and approaches to challenges.

Faculty have the opportunity to explain things, step-by-systematic-step, to help students learn and perform successfully on exams, projects, papers, and other assignments.

This kind of modeling and scaffolding doesn’t take place quite as naturally in online courses, where real-time interactions are limited.

To help students achieve success, faculty must be creative. Faculty should scrutinize their assessments, both large and small. Have the students had the opportunity to build step-by-step, as they would have in an in-person course? Do they have the knowledge and skills they will need to do well on the assessments?

Here are some examples of how faculty can scaffold activities in an online course. When possible, the faculty should make these an opportunity to give incremental feedback so students know whether or not they are on the right track:

  • Many faculty want students to record a video presentation of their research topics. It’s hard enough to give a good presentation without the video-recording element. Faculty can help their online students gain experience with the technology before they have to use it on a high-stakes project. For example, in the first module of the course, faculty can give the students a low-stakes, low-stress assignment: Ask students to record and post a two-minute video introducing themselves to the class.
  • As part of an orientation module, faculty can ask students to send a message using the LMS messaging/email system so they know how to do this later in the class if they have a question or are in need of support. Students can answer a question about the syllabus or list two goals for their learning in the course. Faculty should reply with a short personal greeting so students know the message was received and support is available.
  • During the first module/week of a course, ask the students to upload a PDF of their handwritten work related to solving some type of problem. This exercise will help them learn how to create, locate and submit a PDF file as an assignment in the LMS. It’s a good way to correct any missteps early on.
  • Another idea to consider is that of asking the students to create a concept map of what they already know about the topic of the course, during that first module/week. As the course moves along, ask students to submit a concept map to help them make sense of topics presented in each module/week.

Faculty should look for ways to break down complex tasks so that students can make progress in a timely manner and receive feedback on their work while there is still time to adjust their approach if needed.

-RG