Scaffolds for Learning (Not Just for Construction Sites)

Scaffolds are a familiar sight on the west side of campus, as the future EAOS facility take shape. They’re also, less visibly, an everyday aspect of our classroom work.  Scaffolding is the structure we provide to help students bridge the gap between their current levels of knowledge or skill and the knowledge or skill levels we want them to attain.

Just as construction workers need temporary support structures during the initial phases of building, our students need support and guidance as they begin to learn a new or complex concept or skill that they are unlikely to master on their own. Effective learning happens in this “zone of proximal development,” where students can stretch, with appropriate support, to accomplish tasks they couldn’t achieve alone.

Among the challenges for us, when we’re building scaffolds, are our own expert blind spots: we tend to forget what it’s like not to know the material we’ve spend decades studying, so we forget (and even forget how) to break down the thinking tasks for novice learners. But if students typically struggle with a concept or skill, or if you’re not satisfied with their performance, they would probably benefit from stronger scaffolding.

Students need lots of practice with new concepts and complex reasoning maneuvers. It helps if we can isolate the component skills needed for a particular assignment or exercise and allow students to practice with the pieces before they assemble them. We might ask students to analyze a case, for instance, or develop an argument, without recognizing that we’re asking them to execute half a dozen skills at once. Good scaffolding and transparent instructions help them to see what kind of reasoning they need to practice, and why, as well as what successful work would look like. (The Transparency in Teaching in Learning (TILT) in Higher Education project offers a useful transparent assignment template so students don’t have to struggle to decode the unwritten rules of assignments).

If you were teaching students to write code, scaffolding might involve first modeling the process or sharing a good sample; then letting the class tackle another example and helping them talk through strategies; then assigning a problem to smaller groups; and finally giving students individual practice. With writing assignments, students can work through preliminary stages of a project in a structured way, with feedback, perhaps examining some strong examples and then submitting an annotated bibliography, a lit review, an outline, and a preliminary thesis statement, before drafting the entire paper.

Within our well-designed scaffolds, students can build strong knowledge structures, so the work they produce will be impressive, and gratifying to receive. If you’d like more support in your own construction of effective learning experiences, we’re here to help.

Upcoming Events:
The University Counseling Center needs faculty help notifying students of an important event next Friday, January 26. The UCC and RENEW (Realizing Everyone’s Need for Emotional Wellness) are co-hosting Fresh Check Day: it’s a signature program of the Jordan Porco Foundation, featuring Suicide Prevention Awareness, Mental Health Resilience, Mental Health Resources, and Coping Strategies. It will be a celebratory, festival-like event that includes peer to peer messaging, entertainment, food, prizes and giveaways. It will be held from 11am-2pm on Friday January 26th, at the Union Green (the rain location is the Student Life Center). After a tough fall semester that saw higher-than-average numbers of students in distress, it’s important that students know where they can seek support.