Often, students struggle to understand new or difficult concepts and tasks on their own. Instructional scaffolding is a technique that incrementally guides students through these tasks by providing temporary support until the student is able to operate independently.
To prevent learners from becoming dependent on instructor assistance, successful scaffolding should be broken down into three stages: planning, execution, and fading. These stages create an arch-like process by gradually increasing instructor assistance and then gradually removing assistance. We’ve found this technique conforms nicely to the flow of online course assignments and helps course developers focus on what students need to learn rather than just what information needs to be presented to them.
In the planning stage, break down the concept or task into manageable pieces or segments and consider how you can support the completion of the task. As students learn more and gain more experience, they require less assistance, so you should gradually remove the support to encourage the student to operate independently.
As you decide what support to provide at what time, you’ll also need to consider what the student already knows or is capable of and what kind of support they’ll need. In live teaching sessions, you can use polling or live-quiz techniques to assess what your students know already. In an online course, you’ll need to do plenty of research on your learners to figure out what they are likely to know. Then start by providing a bit more scaffolding than you think they will need. Advanced learners will find the first part of the lesson easy, but they’ll likely be satisfied with the extra practice. Just be sure that you don’t provide too little support for learners who actually need it. So start easy.
There are several ways to provide instructional support during execution. Popular methods include modeling the task or activity for the learner, providing annotations that explain any steps in the process.
When it’s time to offer less support, allow the learner to complete more of the task, but provide opportunities for coaching. The online medium allows you to provide on-demand coaching in the form of pop-up explanations that display only when the learner asks for them. An interactive technique such as this one is beneficial when students come to an online course with varying levels of background knowledge or proficiency. As an added benefit, students tend to retain information better and grasp concepts more quickly when they can actively engage with the material.
Real World Applications
One final advantage of using instructional scaffolding in online learning courses is that exercises that use scaffolding allow learners to apply themselves to real-world work, when they might not be practiced enough in the skills to work such a difficult problem on their own.
For example, in MindEdge’s Project Risk Management: PMI-RMP® Exam Prep, we ask learners to work with a case study in which they create a list of risks ranked in order from most severe to least severe.
The process is a bit too complicated to complete without scaffolding. The learner must consider the risk and determine its probability of occurrence and impact to determine the severity. Based on that severity, the risks must then be ranked in order, and resolutions must be documented. This is too much to do for a novice to do without help. So we break the process into a few steps.
Below, you can see an activity in which the learner determines whether there is low, medium, or high probability and low, medium, or high impact. Once a learner chooses the right answer for each category, the resultant severity is confirmed in the right column.
After completing this activity, the learner then sees the information provided in a static chart, which he or she must use to rank risks.
As you can see above, the learner isn’t asked to exercise more than one skill at a time. He or she doesn’t have to remember how to format a risk register. The template provides headers and instructions are provided above each step to make sure the learner knows how to employ the information provided and how to input answers.
No one single type of instruction will ever be sufficient to maximize student learning or retention. And instructional scaffolding poses challenges of its own. It’s not always possible to accurately determine what a learner is already capable of, what kind of support they’ll need, and when to let them try things independently. But scaffolding gives instructors an opportunity to guide students to the point where they can understand tasks and concepts on their own and this makes instructional scaffolding a valuable tool in the instructor’s toolbox.
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