Scaffolding is a teaching and learning process in which an instructor provides support that is tailored to students’ needs as they learn a skill or process, with the expectation that the scaffolding will be removed as students become more competent and independent at applying the skill or process. The term was borrowed from building construction, in which physical scaffolding is built around a building to support workers during construction, and then removed when the construction is finished. Scaffolding is a strategy to help learners (at any level) move beyond their current abilities or knowledge to gain new abilities or skills. The concept of scaffolding is adapted from developmental psychology research, in which it was observed that parents help their young children learn language by providing specific supports and information to help the child learn new words or concepts.
There are many types of scaffolding, including both written and in-class resources. Written scaffolds might include:
- graphic organizers (charts, diagrams, graphs)
- guides (e.g. study guides, guides for how to accomplish a task or solve a problem)
- templates (writing templates, storyboards)
- prompts (sentence starters)
- web links, online tutorials, or help pages
In-class or in-person scaffolding might include behaviors such as:
- modeling a task
- thinking aloud in front of a class to show how an expert approaches a problem or question
- circulating a classroom talking to students while they’re working, to give advice or provide coaching
- students helping each other solve a problem or teaching each other
- providing timelines with intermediate deadlines for a big project
- breaking down a complex skill, task, or project into its component parts and having students practice the parts in isolation
Scaffolding has a number of benefits for both instructors and students. Because it explicitly helps students connect what they already know to what they are learning at the moment, it promotes deep learning. It is individually tailored to students’ needs, so it helps all students, regardless of their background or familiarity with a topic, to learn the topic and reach instructional goals. In addition, it leads to less frustration for students and more efficient learning, since students are guided to focus on what is most important and helped to avoid dead ends and less useful strategies in accomplishing a task. The supportive learning environment created by scaffolding can also motivate students to gradually take ownership of their own learning and become more self-sufficient learners.
To use scaffolding in your teaching, start by finding out what students already know or what skills they already possess. This step is critical in ensuring that the scaffolding you provide is appropriate for your students’ needs. It is also important to consider where you think students are likely to need help in accomplishing a particular task or gaining new information. What misconceptions are students likely to bring to the topic? Is it possible to break down a complex project or task into component parts and give students practice on the parts in isolation? Would modeling or thinking aloud help students understand how an expert approaches a question or task? (For more on modeling as a scaffolding technique, see the CITL resource on Bottlenecks and Threshold Concepts.) From questions such as these, decide what scaffolding to offer and how to incorporate it into your teaching. As students gain the skills and knowledge you have scaffolded, it is important to monitor their progress (using Classroom Assessment Techniques or other informal assessments) to make sure students are progressing as you expect them to do. The information you gain from these informal assessments will also help you determine how and when to remove the scaffolding. Finally, remember that students will need encouragement as they acquire new knowledge or skills.
Who’s doing this at IUB
Professor Adrian German, in the School of Informatics and Computing, provides “extreme” scaffolding for his students as they learn new programming languages. He describes his scaffolding in this poster from the CITL 2011 “Spotlight on Innovation” poster session.
Instructional scaffolding to improve learning. TA Connections Newsletter, Fall 2008. Accessed on 12/11/12 from http://www.niu.edu/taconnections/2008/fall/scaffolding.shtml.
Larkin, Martha. (2002). Using scaffolded instruction to optimize learning. Accessed on 12/11/12 from http://www.vtaide.com/png/ERIC/Scaffolding.htm.
Johnston, Susan and Jim Cooper. (1997). Supporting student success through scaffolding. Posting # 849 in Tomorrow’s Professor blog by Rick Reis. Accessed on 12/11/12 from http://cgi.stanford.edu/~dept-ctl/tomprof/postings.php.
For more help or information
To get help in designing and using scaffolds in your course, contact CITL to meet with a consultant.