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.

Fostering Information Literacy to Create a More Positive Learning Environment

In an ever-evolving digital landscape that includes unsubstantiated claims on social media, sneaky advertising disguised as unbiased resources, and articles with completely fabricated citations authored by AI-powered chatbots, it is more challenging than ever before to filter out misinformation (and disinformation) from the truth. Like all of us, students can be susceptible to this misinformation, which can have devastating consequences.

How, then, can we as educators work to counteract the misinformation our students are continually exposed to and instead cultivate their information literacy and critical thinking? In the past couple years CATL has sponsored several events around this subject, in which instructors have shared their own experiences, challenges, and triumphs, including a panel at the 2021 Common CAHSS conference and a follow-up event at the 2022 IDI. While we encourage you to watch the recording of the panel in its entirety, we wish to recap some of the main takeaways from those discussions that you may find useful for your own teaching.

Using a Proactive Approach to Information Literacy

Preventative solutions are often the simplest and most effective, and that seems to hold true when it comes to teaching information literacy as well. While the follow-up to this post will focus on directly addressing misinformation that students share during class, this first post will outline measures you can take to reduce the occurrence of such incidents by proactively equipping students with the knowledge and skills they need to engage in your content area.

Teach Thoughtful Critical Analysis

Instructors typically spend a lot of time carefully curating the resources that they include in their courses. As subject matter experts, they know what a “good” source in their field looks like and can select ones that come from reputable sources and are substantiated with solid evidence. Students on the other hand may not have had the chance to hone these critical analysis skills and can get easily led astray when sifting through resources. Fortunately, we can help students develop this important life skill by teaching them how to analyze a source’s credibility.

One framework you could try using with your students is the CRAAP test (or the CAARP test, if you prefer), which besides having a funny, easy to remember acronym, asks students to evaluate a source based its currency, relevance, authority, accuracy, and purpose. Another framework is SOCC (source, observe, contextualize, corroborate) which was developed for history courses but can be applied across disciplines. Frameworks like these help students break down the difficult task of evaluating a resource into smaller steps.

Lateral reading is another excellent strategy to teach students, which is when one conducts external research about the author, publisher, and/or claim to evaluate a source. Often a quick search online can help students identify potentially misleading or outright false information without the need for a more comprehensive analysis. The UWGB Libraries have a plethora of excellent sources on lateral reading and other strategies for evaluating sources, including pre-built lesson ideas. You can even invite a librarian to your class to help conduct a lesson on one of these topics.

Identify Gaps in Students’ Knowledge

Students will likely be walking into your class with varying degrees of background knowledge on the content. In order to help even the playing field, you might want to consider offering students the opportunity to ask questions anonymously, such as in the form of a Canvas survey or a paper “exit ticket.” Once you’ve collected their responses, you can address their concerns in class without identifying the contributors. This helps take the pressure off a student that might be embarrassed to admit their lack of knowledge or misconceptions in front of the whole class.

Another idea is to create an icebreaker activity where students brainstorm common misconceptions about the subject area in small groups. Then, as a class, you can compile their lists and discuss and dispel these myths. Walk through the inquiry process with each misconception—where did this idea come from? Who created it? Why might they have created it? Are there societal or historical contexts that shaped this idea?

In addition to the ideas that students submit, you may wish to do your own inventory of common tropes, myths, stereotypes and misconceptions around the content in your course. If you don’t know the origins of these misconceptions, do a little research so that you can explain their background to students. These types of discussions and activities help students see that challenging their preconceived notions is a natural part of the learning process.

Scaffold Discussions on Complex Topics

Complex issues, such as climate change or structural racism, can be challenging discussion topics due to the substantial number of misconceptions people have. To make things more difficult, students may hold strong opinions on these issues even if their actual understanding of the topic is rather shallow.

To have productive conversations, we first need to teach students the fundamental background knowledge, skills, and frameworks for discussing these topics. Going back to the example of climate change, if students have already had the opportunity to learn about concepts behind climate change, like how matter and energy move through the environment or how humans can influence those movements, they will have an easier time understanding climate change itself once that topic is introduced. Consider ordering the activities in your course to naturally build from foundational concepts towards more complex topics.

Do You Have Other Ideas?

Information literacy is not an easy skill to teach but is so important that we continue to do so in an age when information and misinformation of all kinds is just a Google search away. What are some additional strategies you have used to proactively address common misconceptions or teach information literacy? Or, if you have used any of the methods mentioned here, how did they play out in your own course? Let us know by posting a comment below or by emailing Let’s continue the conversation!

Our special thanks go out to Preston Cherry, Christin DePouw, Lisa Lamson, J P Leary, Brian Merkel, Valerie Murrenus Pilmaier, and Jessica Warwick for their contributions to the 2021 Common CAHSS panel and follow-up 2022 IDI session that served as the inspiration for this article!

Transparency and Student Success: Time-Saving Small Changes

At the recent Instructional Development Institute (IDI) 2023 Conference, our community came together to discuss the topic of student success. One common theme discussed was how instructors and staff can help students succeed in college. An answer that came up repeatedly within various sessions was to adjust our course design methods. While making changes to a course can seem a daunting task, supporting student success does not have to involve doing a large-scale course overhaul. Instead, making small, sustainable changes to a course or even to individual activities and assessments can help increase the chances of student success within the classroom. These small changes are also an easier and more realistic lift for instructors, and some of them can even be time saving overall. In this blog post, we will explore some examples of how including the transparency in learning and teaching (TiLT) framework and proper scaffolding can help reduce confusion and barriers between instructors and students when engaging with learning materials. 

One of the easiest ways to include the TiLT framework within your course is to include detailed instructions for activities and assessments. Provide clearly written and detailed instructions to students on why an assignment is being given, what tasks students must do to complete the assignment or assessment, and what criteria will be used to grade their work. Assignment and assessment descriptions can be broken down into three clearly defined categories. ‘Purpose,’ ‘Task,’ and ‘Criteria for Completion’ or similarly named categories can help guide students through activities. At the end of the day, using the TiLT framework to make the “why” and “how” of your assignments and assessments more transparent to your students can also save time for you by reducing the number of emails or messages you receive from students asking for clarification. 

Another way to easily incorporate TiLT is the inclusion of scaffolding using low-stakes assignments and assessments. Smaller scale, low-stakes assessments or assignments can scaffold towards a final summative assessment. By breaking the process up into smaller, more manageable chunks, students can more easily track deadlines, which can reduce procrastination. Making these assignments and assessments worth only a few points can also provide incentive to complete them, and act as a buffer towards the final grade. Lastly, scaffolded assignments can also cut down on plagiarism cases, as you will be able to see the student’s work as they progress towards the final deliverable for your course. 

Using Canvas Rubrics to identify and explain assignment and assessment grading criteria and to show students what is required to complete an assessment is a third way to include TiLT within your course. This option can be used for both formative and summative assessments. You can also align rubric criteria to match with the expected outcomes of your course. Choosing to align course outcomes directly with course activities and rubrics also shows transparency in how different course elements will met expected course outcomes. The inclusion of detailed rubrics that match the expected outcomes for module assignments, discussions, or other assessments can help guide students through formative assessments. Rubrics can also show transparency in assessment purpose, goals, and completion in line with the TiLT framework, and are integrated with the Canvas Speedgrader to make grading assignments and assessments based on the rubric faster. 

If you would like to learn more about how to use the TiLT framework to make small, sustainable changes within your own course design, feel free to contact the CATL office through email ( or schedule a consultation with us. Interested instructors may also want to sign up for our professional training opportunity LITE 201: Trail Guides when it is offered in the summer. This course will walk you through creating modules, assignments, and assessments using Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and Transparency in Learning and Teaching (TiLT) for your own courses. 

Evidence-Based Frameworks and Strategies for Keeping Students Engaged

Keeping students engaged in their learning throughout an entire semester is a challenge that exists across all disciplines and modalities. Though the ways in which you implement strategies for increasing student engagement might vary because of these factors, the good news is that the underlying principles remain the same. Below are some of the key methods and strategies that have emerged as common themes across many studies on the relationships between teaching practices and student engagement.

Foster a Culture of Growth, Trust, and Belonging

Part of a student’s engagement in a course is tied to the affective domain of learning, or a student’s thoughts and feelings about their own learning. Does the student feel like they belong in this learning environment? Are they respected by their peers and the instructor? Do they see their instructor as an ally in the learning journey, or as an adversary?

One aspect of the affective domain is whether an individual has a growth mindset or a fixed mindset. The Center for Learning Experimentation, Application and Research at the University of North Texas has a great list of growth mindset interventions instructors can implement. It is worth noting, however, that research seems to indicate the effectiveness of these interventions is contingent on the instructor’s mindset as well. Studies have shown that instructors with a greater growth mindset (as opposed to a fixed mindset) have smaller racial achievement gaps and inspire more student motivation in their courses.

The affective domain also includes students’ feelings of belonging and trust. While the degree to which you can affect these feelings has limitations, evidence-based practices usually boil down to how you interact with students and facilitate interactions between students. A few examples include using a welcoming tone in your syllabus, modelling inclusive language, and taking the time to get to know your students’ names. Even in asynchronous classes it is important to build trust with your students. For example, you might want to consider using a week-one survey to provide your students with an opportunity to tell you about themselves.

Break Up Lectures & Add Opportunities for Active Learning

When there is a lot of content that needs to be disseminated across the duration of the semester, lectures are a common method for communicating that information quickly and efficiently. But the longer and denser the lecture is, the more instructors risk losing their students along the way due to cognitive load.

One solution is to build pause points into your lectures. Students benefit from structured pauses during lectures as it allows them space to question, process, and reflect on the information that they’ve absorbed. For pre-recorded lectures, the same idea can be achieved by breaking up a long lecture video into multiple short, topical videos (research suggests 6-12 minutes is an ideal length for maintaining student engagement). Fortunately, Kaltura (My Media) makes it very easy to trim and save video clips from right within Canvas.

When adding pauses for students to digest information, it is also beneficial to create opportunities for active learning activities. These activities can be very brief, such as using an anonymous polling tool to check for student understanding during a lecture. For more in-depth active learning, consider making time for small group discussions, written reflections, and other exercises that require students to employ higher order thinking skills. For courses with an asynchronous component, PlayPosit allows instructors to add a variety of engagement activities to pre-recorded lecture videos, while Hypothesis may be useful for incorporating annotation and reflection activities into assigned readings.

Provide Transparency and Support

When a student needs to spend a lot of mental energy figuring out the logistics of how to complete an activity, they have less mental energy left to engage with the course materials themselves. Therefore, transparency and scaffolding are both key elements to designing engaging assignments.

The Transparency in Learning and Teaching (TiLT) framework is designed to help instructors write clear and descriptive instructions for learning materials and assignments. For this framework, lay out the task, purpose, and criteria for each learning activity. If a student knows what they are supposed to do, why they are supposed to do it (how it ties to the course learning outcomes), and how they are going to be assessed, they can go into the activity more confident in their ability to engage with it.

It is common for a student to stop engaging with a course if they feel like they don’t have the means or resources to complete the tasks they’ve been assigned. Proper instructional scaffolding can help counter this issue by bridging some of the cognitive gaps and reducing the number of students that fall through the cracks. For example, if the final assignment in your course is an 8-page research paper, consider breaking up the process into several smaller assignments, such as having students submit their topic, bibliography, and outline at various points throughout the semester. Other ways to provide scaffolding this assignment might include modelling (providing examples of papers that meet the outcomes of the assignment), incorporating instructor or peer feedback for the outline or an early draft of the paper, and providing a robust rubric to guide students on how to meet the assignment outcomes.

Additional Resources

Engaging students is a broad topic that we are only just able to scratch the surface of in this post. Below are some resources for further reading if you’d like to dive in deeper.


As always, we welcome you to share your ideas for engaging students by dropping a comment below or emailing us at If you’d like to discuss any of these methods or ideas one-on-one, a CATL member would be happy to meet with you for a consultation as well.