When it comes to learning, there’s value in helping students see the ‘forest for the trees.’ Making students aware of the learning process, the steps involved and the value of what they’re being asked to learn can do wonders in fostering the critical thinking and reflection so important to success in higher ed and beyond. And that’s exactly where the power of instructional scaffolding lies. Like a scaffolding platform used to support construction workers, this teaching approach involves using guides to help students build upon their higher-order cognitive skills and develop a deep understanding and appreciation of your material.

Dr. Elaine Bohórquez, Teaching Associate Professor of Physiology at North Carolina State University, is among the many advocates of this teaching technique. At Top Hat Engage in February 2022, Dr. Bohórquez offered four valuable strategies for professors looking to make assessment time less daunting and more valuable.

The four types of instructional scaffolding

Instructional scaffolding involves giving students access to the people, resources and thought processes they need to master course concepts. The following types of scaffolding are designed to guide students from a basic level of understanding to application and ultimately, subject mastery.

Procedural scaffoldingConceptual scaffolding
Guiding students through operational steps to complete a taskPrompting students to consider concepts relevant to the task
Strategic scaffoldingMetacognitive scaffolding
Offering students alternative perspectives or approaches to a taskHelping students to plan, monitor, and evaluate the task process

Dr. Bohórquez offers the following best practices when looking to adopt scaffolding activities in your course.

1. Break down an assessment into manageable sub-tasks (Metacognitive scaffolding)

When was the sole, high-stakes test administered at the end of the semester ever enough to measure true learning? Dr. Bohórquez recommends dividing your assessments into smaller components that are distributed throughout course units. For written assignments, she asks students to submit a synthesis matrix (a chart highlighting overlapping themes in scholarly work), first draft, guided peer review and second draft before turning in a final essay. 

An iterative learning process promotes key skills that are valued in today’s knowledge economy. In this particular scenario, students have the opportunity to research and organize ideas, formulate arguments, receive and provide feedback and reflect on what’s working and where further improvements can be made. On the flip side, educators are given additional time to correct misconceptions as they arise and share feedback opposed to penalizing students when grading their final paper. This instructional scaffolding technique works just as well for projects and case studies as it does for essay writing.

2. Provide plenty of exemplars (Strategic scaffolding, Procedural scaffolding)

Before beginning any assignment, students want to fully understand what’s expected of them. Consider sharing examples of the quality of work required for students to earn an ‘A’ grade. You might do this by distributing anonymized assignments from past students who earned A, B and C grades along with your rationale. This method allows students to identify areas for improvement in their own work and lets them seek out the necessary support in advance of turning in an assignment. 

Depending on the project, you could also share a detailed rubric of what sets an ‘A’ assignment apart from a ‘B’ or ‘C’ assignment. Doing so will allow students to not just copy the past examples you share with them, but actively question what criteria they need to incorporate into their own work. If you lead hands-on classes or labs, you may want to model a process for students. For example, you could demonstrate parts of a multi-step science experiment for students to grasp what’s expected of them before conducting the experiment themselves.

3. Bridge the gap between current and prior knowledge (Conceptual scaffolding)

Personalization. It’s one of the most successful and fastest ways to get students to see value in what they’re learning. As Dr. Bohórquez recommends, connect the dots between your learning unit and timely scenarios or references outside of higher education. Just as important: ensure your course modules build upon the knowledge shared in the previous lesson. Doing so will also make it easier for students to study and review concepts during end-of-semester evaluations.

As educators like Dr. Elizabeth Sargent have found, relatability translates to increased satisfaction and engagement. Dr. Sargent, Biology Lecturer at Georgia Southern University, uses Top Hat’s polling feature to tailor her lessons to student interests. “My topics are static, but the examples we use change every semester based on what students want to learn and what’s relevant to their lives and career paths,” says Sargent. Incorporating references that matter to students allows them to engage with your course material in a more applicable manner.

4. Organize and address misconceptions before approaching a task (Metacognitive scaffolding)

Student-directed learning accounts for a big portion of scaffolding. Dr. Bohórquez suggests giving students ample opportunity to organize their thought processes before a major assessment—through collaboration, reflection and communication with peers. Put into practice, Dr. Sargent embodies a collaborative-heavy assessment process, giving her learners the chance to take part in a group exam before completing this task individually. She’s since found that this approach allows her to level the playing field, letting students discuss and debate ideas to get everyone to an equal state of comprehension.

Offer students visual or audio resources to help them grasp new concepts. You might use a graphic organizer or chart to make information easier for students to remember, understand and apply—the three bottom rungs of the Bloom’s Taxonomy pyramid. 

Incorporating instructional scaffolding techniques into your course isn’t as difficult as it may seem. It starts with embracing the role of a ‘guide on the side’ for students to take advantage of the necessary support systems they need to achieve a high level of academic excellence. Consider giving it a try in your next course and see the outsized impact this teaching strategy has on making learning more reflective, collaborative and valuable for all students throughout their unique learning journeys.

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