Scaffolding for Online Learning

As the end of the semester approaches and you begin to review the curricular structure of your courses in the near future, you may recognize the need for more robust scaffolding in content design regarding the online modality. Before reviewing and modifying your course in this capacity, it is important to know what scaffolding is, and why it is important for student learning. Scaffolding, as EdGlossary defines it in education, refers to ‘a variety of instructional techniques used to move students progressively toward stronger understanding and, ultimately, greater independence in the learning process’. Ultimately, the goal of scaffolding is to give students building blocks of learning that lead to better retention and acquisition of knowledge.

The most common place to start with scaffolding that can provide a significant impact is in larger assignments or assessments. A good ‘rule of thumb’ is to begin with the tasks that take a significant portion of time and energy. Breaking an assessment into smaller subtasks creates natural checkpoints for the students to gauge their understanding. This also allows you as the teacher to gain insight into how their knowledge acquisition is going and allows you to slightly alter course if the learning is not going as first imagined – check out CATL’s blog post on ‘small teaching’ for more information on that topic.

For example, if you are requiring students to ultimately create a final essay project, you could create a scaffolded or sequenced set of checkpoints to build towards the final assignment’s conclusion. The University of Michigan’s Center for Writing has a comprehensive breakdown of this sequencing:

  1. Pre-Writing: including proposals, work-in-progress presentations, and research summaries
  2. Writing: including counterarguments, notes, and drafts
  3. Revision: including peer reviews, conferences, and revision plans

The introduction of any of these concepts in an online environment requires intentionality and planning, while ensuring the students remain highly engaged throughout the process. As the students revise their papers, scheduling individual conferences, peer reviews (via online conferences, social annotations via Hypothesis, or via Canvas), and revision plans can all provide beneficial steps for a scaffolded approach to a final essay project. To ensure that the students are understanding what is required of them, be certain that you answer such critical questions as:

  • How are students able to know that they completed the steps required, and how will they know they have completed it satisfactorily?
  • How will you make the connections between the scaffolded activities and the end product clear as students progress systematically through the courses?
  • Have you clearly identified opportunities for students, particularly in the online modality, to get together remotely for feedback, thought-partnering, and/or review?

Another version of scaffolding in the online modality has to do with the structuring of how students gain an understanding of the content. The University of Buffalo’s Office of Curriculum, Assessment, and Teaching Transformation takes the Gradual Release of Responsibility (GRR) model and utilizes it in both a standard classroom, as well as a ‘flipped classroom’ environment. The GRR model focuses on an ‘I Do’, ‘We Do’, ‘You Do’ framework that is very popular in educational scaffolding. This framework for scaffolding could be centered around a larger assignment or exam, but it does not necessarily need to be. The GRR model of scaffolding could also be utilized when breaking down a larger concept for students. See how this model could potentially be utilized in a chemistry lesson surrounding intramolecular forces:

  1. “I Do” – The instructor creates an introductory lesson introducing intramolecular forces, and discusses the types of bonds that atoms can form (ionic, covalent, etc.). The instructor then shows examples of these types of bonds utilizing different atom types via medium of choice.
  2. “We Do” – This portion of the scaffolding could take place between students, working in pairs or small groups identifying the different types of bonds, and providing examples of each. This scaffolding could also include meeting with the instructor, via Teams or Zoom, or through a discussion that provides more of a ‘guided’ approach to the concepts.
  3. “You Do” – Students work on their own to display the learning that they have gathered on the topic. This could be done with a written assignment, discussion board post, low-stake quiz, or any way that the instructor chooses to assess students’ acquisition of knowledge.

These are just a couple of examples how you can integrate scaffolding into your course content for online learning. The critical aspect of scaffolding is purposeful chunking and segmenting of complex concepts and activities for comprehensive knowledge acquisition. It is important to keep in mind that any scaffolding should continue to be aligned to course expectations and learning outcomes as students will be more successful when it is done with consistency in a holistic sense.

If you would like to learn more about how to use scaffolding for online learning in your own course or have examples of how you are already using it, we’d love to hear from you! Feel free to contact the CATL office by email (CATL@uwgb.edu) to let us know where you’ve found success with these strategies, or to schedule a consultation with us.

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