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Scaffolding Student Work

“Practice makes perfect” … right? If you have ever competed in a sport, played a musical instrument, or prepared for a driving exam, you know that not all practicing is equal. For instance, if you were to drive to school every day but never parallel park or learn how to merge onto the highway, chances are you will have difficulty executing those maneuvers on the road test. However, if you practice each skill required for the exam, you will likely have a more favorable final outcome.

Similar principles apply to student learning in college courses: it is necessary to practice the skills needed to produce high-quality work. Yet, assignments are often designed as one-off tasks with fewer opportunities for the process of skill development to play out (e.g. a single term paper or final exam). This can lead to frustration for educators, who may not be pleased with the final product, even if the assignment’s directions seemed like they were perfectly clear. It can also inhibit students’ attainment of important skills. For example, a student may write a final paper every semester but never learn how to write a proper literature review or how to cite sources. And for many students, comments on how to improve their writing for next semester may never be read or do not receive the requisite follow-up practice. How, then, can teachers be sure that students are receiving the proper training and skill development needed to succeed and achieve the learning goals of the course?

flikr photo "Scaffolding" by Kevin Dooley shared under a CC BY 2.0 license

flikr photo “Scaffolding” by Kevin Dooley
shared under a CC BY 2.0 license

One technique for teaching these important skills is to scaffold students’ work. This involves breaking down large assignments into parts and focusing on single skills along the way. A final paper could be dissected over the course of the semester into the introduction, literature review, analysis, conclusion, and bibliography or into the planning, writing, and revision stages. A final exam could be broken down into a number of quizzes or writing assignments. Ultimately, the goal is to ensure that students understand each step of the process and receive resources and feedback with time to work on each component. Thus, like a construction project, students build up the foundation necessary to produce a strong and well-made final product.

Scaffolding can be incorporated into one’s teaching in other ways as well. When assigning a challenging reading assignment, some teachers provide a list of questions to answer or sections to focus on. Before introducing a complex equation, a statistician might spend some time reviewing theories and basic math needed to solve the problem. Or one might assign students to groups to discuss the background of the problem. A history professor might teach students the techniques of reading primary literature before asking them to interpret a difficult text. In each instance, students’ gaps in prior knowledge are filled in, allowing them to focus on higher-level thinking. By ensuring students have the necessary skills to complete each task, it allows them to become more independent learners and to develop greater mastery of the subject.

While it may require more time and energy upfront to scaffold an assignment or a difficult concept, the payoffs occur later in the semester when students have a clearer understanding of the tasks they are being asked to do and possess the skills needed to turn in higher quality work. Scaffolding saves time spent individually explaining to students how to write a proper literature review, for instance, and allows you to direct feedback to higher levels of thinking rather than smaller steps that students should be expected to complete along the way. You may already scaffold your teaching or student work and not even know it!

If you would like to try scaffolding an assignment or a lesson, think about the different skills students need to gain to achieve your established learning goals. Consider students’ prior knowledge and experience, how you can challenge students to develop those skills, and the types of support you can offer along the way. Scaffolding can be especially effective if students are given low-stakes opportunities to succeed (for example, if the assignment is ungraded or is a draft of a future product). Gradually, you can remove the support as students become stronger independent thinkers and successfully complete the assigned tasks on their own. Finally, be transparent with your students about what you are doing; they will have a clearer idea of your goals and will likely appreciate your efforts to improve their learning experience.


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