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.

Supporting First-Generation College Students (Mar. 24 & Apr. 28, 2023)

CATL is excited to partner with Lisa Lamson, Assistant Teaching Professor in Humanities and 2022-23 EDI Consultant, to offer two workshops this spring on supporting the success of first-generation college students.

Transparency in Syllabus Design for First-Gen Student Success (Mar. 24, 1 – 2 p.m.)

The first of the two workshops, Transparency in Syllabus Design for First Gen Student Success, will be held in person on Friday, Mar. 24 from 1 – 2 p.m. in the Alumni Room (University Union 103). This workshop addresses the whys and hows of syllabi – how can faculty best utilize the first-day foundational document throughout the semester to best support first-generation students as they navigate college? Despite best efforts, there seems to be a disconnect between how faculty see class syllabi and how students engage with the syllabi. This workshop intends to act as a bridge to help faculty articulate how their syllabi and learning outcomes shape the learning experiences throughout the semester and how it connects to their “genre knowledge” to help students see the value in a syllabus. In doing so, this workshop seeks to help faculty support first-generation students’ sense of belonging in the classroom and in the university by making clear the activities in the classroom’s connection to the university’s learning outcomes and beyond.

Unpacking the Hidden Curriculum for First-Generation Student Success (Apr. 28, 1 – 2 p.m.)

The the second workshop, Unpacking the Hidden Curriculum for First-Generation Student Success, will be held in person on Friday, Apr. 28 from 1 – 2 p.m. in MAC 107. “How do you know what you know?” – “Hidden Curriculum,” or the unspoken expectations of college in and outside of the classroom, often acts as a barrier to first-generation student success. While much of the academic scholarship on the “hidden curriculum” focuses on student experiences, this workshop intends to bring the conversation explicitly into the classroom – how can we uncover the information we, as faculty, just know and translate that for our students? How can we teach something we have learned through doing? This workshop proposes an opportunity for faculty to articulate the hidden “just knows” for their classroom to improve student achievement and, ultimately, success. Working through an assignment of their choosing, faculty will identify hidden expectations in their assessments and rubrics, and develop ways to make clear how the expectations of the assignment align with the course outcomes and beyond.

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. 

Language Inclusivity at UWGB: Reflecting on Our Practices and Policies to Serve Language-rich Students (Feb. 24, Mar. 3, Mar. 31, & Apr. 12, 2023)

What language practices do your students bring to our UWGB community? How do you value and sustain those language practices in your classrooms and other interactions with students? Join Dr. Cory Mathieu, 2022-23 EDI Consultant, and Edith Mendez, undergraduate student in Education, in a workshop series to prompt UWGB faculty and staff to engage in these questions to begin to cultivate a culture of language inclusivity across our campus. Each workshop is tailored to one of the four UWGB colleges with examples and recommendations that are responsive to the needs of various academic and professional fields. Workshops will be interactive, reflective, and in-person.

Save the date for your college!

  • CHESW: Friday, February 24, 12 – 1 p.m., Wood Hall 303
  • CAHSS: Friday, March 3, 12 – 1 p.m., MAC Hall 210
  • CSET: Friday, March 31, 12 – 1 p.m., STEM Innovation Center 136, 137, & 138
  • CSB: Wednesday, April 12, 12 – 1 p.m., Wood Hall 202

If you need an accommodation for any of the sessions, please contact

Implementing Negotiable Grading Schemes

Article by Amy J. Kabrhel, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Chemistry & 2022-23 Instructional Development Consultant

For years I have seen students enter my courses on the first day of classes eager to engage with the course material who then slowly stop doing the homework but still perform well on the exams. I wondered if this was due to exhaustion, being overwhelmed with other demands on their time, or, frankly, just laziness. On the flip side, I have had students who rock it on the homework and fumble on the exams. I know they have learned the material being assessed but their ability to show me what they have learned via my exams is hindered. There are several reasons for this (undiagnosed learning disability, test anxiety, lack of sleep, etc.), but after 16 years of teaching in higher education, I have finally decided to make my course grading scheme more equitable for the wide variety of students I see in my courses. In Fall of 2022, I implemented a negotiable grading scheme in my CHEM 211 (Principles of Chemistry I) course as detailed below.

Negotiable Grading Scheme for CHEM 211
#1-Consistency Commander #2-Exam Rockstar #3-Quiz Master #4-Final Boss
Exams (4): 40% (10% each) 56% (14% each) 24% (6% each) 40% (10% each)
Final Exam: 15%

(equiv. to 1.5 exams)


(equiv. to 1.5 exams)


(equiv. to 1.5 exams)


(equiv. to 2.5 exams)

Online Homework

(42-lowest 2 dropped):


(0.5% each)


(0.125% each)


(1% each)


(0.375% each)

Pre-Lecture Quizzes

(37-lowest 7 dropped):


(~0.33% each)


(0.1% each)


(0.4% each)


(~0.17% each)

Discussion (4 graded): 5% (1.25% per graded week)
Project: 10%

#1–Consistency Commander: Tends to maintain consistent and successful study/learning strategies across the semester, appreciates the use of homework and quizzes to regularly check in and keep motivation up.

#2–Exam Rockstar: Prefers to spend time studying for exams, does not place a high priority on weekly check-in assessments (homework and quizzes).

#3–Quiz Master: Places a high priority on weekly check-in assessments (homework and quizzes) to regularly keep up with the material, places a lower priority on exams.

#4–Final Boss: Prefers synthesizing knowledge across the term and proving their knowledge acquisition at the end of the semester on the cumulative Final Exam, places a lower priority on weekly check-in assessments.

In this negotiable grading system, students select the grading scheme that best matches their abilities, learning preferences, time constraints, and anxieties. On the first day of classes last fall, I introduced these grading schemes, described each in a bit more detail, and then asked each student to fill out a small sheet of scratch paper with their name and their preferred grading scheme. I made it clear that they were not locked into this scheme on Day 1 but that by reflecting on their choice at the beginning of the semester, they knew where to focus their efforts. After Exam 2 (approximately halfway through the semester), we revisited the grading schemes, and students locked in their scheme for the semester.

On Day 1, half of my students picked #1-Consistency Commander and the other half picked #3-Quiz Master. This did not surprise me since a large number of students have some form of test anxiety. However, after seeing their exam scores on Exams 1 & 2, which were quite good this fall, and seeing how a few of them had started not completing the homework and pre-lecture quizzes on time, a few students switched to #2-Exam Rockstar. After the Final Exam, I calculated each student’s final course grade in each grading scheme (easily done via Excel) and found that most students had picked the scheme that best matched their skills and learning preferences. A few, however, had a higher grade in a scheme different than the one they had selected. I discussed this with them (via email or in person) to help them reflect on their metacognition and to help them get a better sense of their strengths (and weaknesses) as a college student. They were very appreciative of this, and I believe this will help them realize where they may need to focus more of their attention in courses that do not use negotiable grading schemes.

This spring semester, I am using a similar negotiable grading scheme in my CHEM 212 (Principles of Chemistry II) course. Most of my CHEM 212 students took CHEM 211 with me last fall, so they were anticipating this grading system, and when I introduced it on Day 1, they were very thankful. Many of them stated that they wished more of their professors used this system, which is what prompted me to write this blog post. I think negotiable grading schemes are a wonderful way to make your course more accessible and equitable to our students who come from varying backgrounds with unique skill sets that speak to some assessment types more so than others. In addition, negotiable grading schemes give students agency in your course and a feeling that they have more control over their course grades. They can more easily balance their workload and put their efforts into the assessments that matter most to them. As you can see from my schemes presented above, all assignments are still included in each overall scheme; it is their weight that changes. In some cases (e.g., Discussion and Project for my course), the assessment is too important for it to have varying weight from scheme to scheme. This can express to students the value of certain assessments.

One minor drawback is that Canvas can only show one grading scheme. I chose #1-Consistency Commander for the scheme I put in my CHEM 211 Canvas page. This means students who chose a different grading scheme had to see me (or email me) to know what their current grade was on their chosen scheme. Thankfully, if you keep your Excel grade book up to date, this is not too difficult to communicate to those students.

Overall, I found this method of grading liberating for students and wonderful for student-instructor rapport. As mentioned, I am using this method in Spring 2023, and I plan to continue using this method in most of my courses from now on. If you have any questions for me about negotiable grading scheme, I would be more than happy to chat with you about them.