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 ( to let us know where you’ve found success with these strategies, or to schedule a consultation with us.

Small Teaching: Ways to Make Quick, Impactful Changes on Student Learning

While the spring semester is now partially completed, it is still critical to engage in reflective practices as a constant component of teaching students. While analyzing how your courses have gone throughout the first couple of months and looking to make improvements throughout the remainder of the semester, you may notice small changes you can make to adapt your curricular delivery, assignments, or assessments for the betterment of student learning and engagement. In February, we posted on The Cowbell a blog post that centered around the TILT (Transparency in Learning and Teaching) Framework. In this blog post, we will take the tenants or ideas of the TILT framework a step further, and focus on ‘small teaching’ – ways to incorporate a one-time modification or intervention that can be done in a period of no more than 5-15 minutes. 

James Lang wrote about small teaching in 2016 with his book entitled Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning. The book has since published a second edition. In it, he contends that for anything to be designated as an impactful technique regarding small teaching, it first must be accessible. This accessibility includes the ability for the technique to be translated for every content delivery mechanism, from small group instruction to large lectures. Secondly, it requires minimal prep and grading. This ensures that it is a small and incremental change, rather than a complete overhaul. Lastly, it must be foundationally rooted in the learning sciences.  

One adaptive instruction technique that embraces the small teaching criteria is to frame your curriculum with predictive questioning for analysis and background knowledge. This effectively challenges the students to go beyond their current level of understanding and ability to critically analyze and predict. If the prediction is incorrect, students can begin to analyze why they thought that way, where they may have thought differently, and develop a deeper understanding of what the correct response would be and why.  

Much like in the world of academia, the same patterned learning can be found in real-world examples. If you have ever taken leftovers from a meal and predicted incorrectly at what size container to utilize, or you have stepped out on an ice-covered driveway only to realize a better pair of shoes may provide more grip, you have engaged in predictive living. Our lives are in a constant predict-detect-correct cycle of learning. There are several ways predictive learning can be utilized in the classroom in small ways. You can activate prior knowledge through pre-quizzes or writing prompts, utilize polls or informal class predictions, or as a closing discussion about predicting upcoming lab experiments and results. These can be followed up with short discussions at the beginning of a future class. 

Another minor change that can impact your students is the practice of information retrieval. Dr. Pooja K. Agarwal has done extensive research around memory and retrieval practice, and in a recent publication of Educational Psychology Review, she concluded that “retrieval practice improved learning for a variety of education levels, content areas, experimental designs, retrieval practice timing, final test delays, retrieval and final test formats, and the timing of feedback” (p. 1427). This sort of retrieval practice lends itself to long-term learning, rather than short-term success. 

There are a few ways you can effectively implement retrieval practice in short amounts of time. For example, implementing small quizzes at the end of each Canvas module can help lead to a greater depth of understanding. This could be utilized for several modalities, such as asynchronous online teaching, for a version of conditional release to move on through other modules. You could implement a short writing analysis of the current day’s lesson and information presented, or, to achieve a similar result, conduct an ‘exit ticket’ question as students wrap up class for the day.  

These are just some of the ways to utilize small, incremental changes that provide deeper learning and student understanding to be enhanced. It is important to keep in mind that any sort of small teaching modification 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 to maximize its impact.

If you would like to learn more about how to use the tenets of small teaching within your own course design, feel free to contact the CATL office by email ( or schedule a consultation with us. If you are interested in reading more about small teaching and the science of learning, CATL has copies of Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning available for checkout as well.