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Best Practices | Scaffolding to Support Student Success in Online Courses

Have you ever developed a great assignment or project to evaluate student understanding in a course only to find that the students do not even come close to meeting your expectations? It can be frustrating for faculty and students alike when students are not prepared to meet the high expectations of faculty or when they do not perform well on high stakes assignments. In order make sure your students are able to complete the assignments and assessments in your course, you need to provide them with just the right amount of support or scaffolding to allow them to succeed. In this article, we will look at what scaffolding is, what it is not, and examples of scaffolding.


“Scaffolding is the help given to a learner that is tailored to that learner’s needs in achieving his or her goals of the moment” (Sawyer, 2006, p. 11). Further, scaffolding “refers to the steps taken to reduce the degrees of freedom in carrying out some task so that the child can concentrate on the difficult skill she is in the process of acquiring” (Bruner, 1978, p. 19). Lev Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development refers to the area between what a student can accomplish on his own and what the same student can accomplish with assistance. The concept of the zone of proximal development is often used in conjunction with the term scaffolding. Effective scaffolding contributes to learning by providing students with a structure that helps them figure out how to do something on their own. Simply telling a student how to do something, or even doing it for them, is not scaffolding because the student is not an active participant in the construction of knowledge (Sawyer, 2006). It is important to note that providing scaffolding does not mean giving your students step-by-step instructions for completing a task, giving them all of the answers for a test, or doing an assignment for them. Scaffolding is temporary, not permanent. Similar to the scaffolding used during construction of a building, it is meant to provide short-term support and should be removed once it is no longer needed. Scaffolding should be utilized according to the needs of individual students with a goal of moving students toward being able to perform a task on their own.


In the Faculty Focus article “Scaffolding Student Learning: Tips for Getting Started,” Dr. Vicki Caruana (2012) offers the following tips for scaffolding an assignment or assessment:

  • Create a list of the major assignments/assessments in your course (include a brief description for each)
  • List the prerequisite skills necessary for success on each. If it is not reasonable for students to have these skills, you will need to provide scaffolding
  • Develop mini assignments designed to offer students an opportunity to learn and practice the prerequisite skills
  • Create an outline of the scaffolding for each assignment in the course and share it with students so the scaffolding is evident (students should see that the course activities build on each other in a logical sequence)

In her book Effective Online Teaching: Foundations and Strategies for Student Success, Tina Stavredes provides many practical tips and examples of scaffolding for online instructors. Stavredes (2011) recommends providing students with scaffolding as they learn to navigate an online course. An example of this type of scaffolding is a document or video that provides an orientation to the online environment (Blackboard) including the various tools that will be used in the course. Stavredes (2011) also recommends providing students with a document that addresses topics such as your teaching style, the pace of the course, the amount of time it will take to complete weekly activities, required course materials, due dates, communication protocols, grading and feedback, and academic integrity.


Even once your students are comfortable working in the online environment, they may need scaffolding to help them build their thinking processes, including planning, monitoring, and evaluating. Examples of scaffolds to address these needs include a course overview that outlines course goals and how learning activities accomplish the goals, a time log to help students monitor their progress on an activity, self-evaluation activities that can be used to tailor feedback to students, and note-taking templates to assist students with reflecting on what they are learning (Stavredes, 2011). Students may also struggle to digest difficult content and may need scaffolding to learn how to identify key concepts and organize them into meaningful arrangements. Stavredes (2011) suggests using advance organizers, study guides, graphic organizers, and outlines as scaffolds to address this need.


Effective scaffolding provides just enough support to students to allow them to reach the next level of understanding and to successfully complete a learning task. When creating scaffolding activities for your courses, it is important to create scaffolding that provides just the right amount of support. If you provide too much support in your scaffolding activities, students may lose the motivation to try hard. If you provide too little support, students may get frustrated and stop trying because they do not know how to complete an activity.

References

Bruner, J. (1978). The role of dialogue in language acquisition. In A. Sinclair, R., J. Jarvelle, and W. J. M. Levelt (eds.) The Child's Concept of Language. New York, NY: Springer-Verlag.

Caruana, V. (2012). Scaffolding Student Learning: Tips for Getting Started. Faculty Focus. Retrieved from http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/instructional-design/scaffolding-student-learning-tips-for-getting-started/