Scaffolding Student Learning: Tips for Getting Started

Many of us who teach in higher education do not have a teaching background, nor do we have experience in curriculum development. We know our content areas and are experts in our fields, but structuring learning experiences for students may or may not be our strong suit. We’ve written a syllabus (or were handed one to use) and have developed some pretty impressive assessments, projects, and papers in order to evaluate our students’ progress through the content. Sometimes we discover that students either don’t perform well on the learning experiences we’ve designed or they experience a great deal of frustration with what they consider high stakes assignments. Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1978) proposes that it’s important to determine the area (zone) between what a student can accomplish unaided and what that same student can accomplish with assistance. This provides for consistent structural support, when required (Hogan & Pressley, 1997).

If there is one major paper in the course and 80% of their final grade depends on their ability to meet the high expectations of that paper, they better be able to produce a quality piece right out of the gate. However, often they’ve not had any preparation to meet these high expectations and no opportunity to revise and resubmit their work. Whether your students are “grade-focused” or “learning-focused,” they will benefit from the energy you put providing scaffolding opportunities for each major or key assignment in a course. A good rule of thumb is the higher the stakes, the more scaffolding you need to include. In other words, the heavier the weight, the stronger the support.

Getting Started with Scaffolding
Take some time to evaluate how you’ve designed the learning experiences in your courses. Identify what your major assignments/assessments are and then create a scaffold for each. One unintended outcome of this exercise is that you may discover that either you have an assignment that is no longer relevant or you are missing something that might even be a more meaningful gauge of student learning. Consider these tips to scaffolding a major assignment or assessment.

  • Write a brief description of each major assignment/assessment which should include the necessary skills you intend to evaluate using the assignment/assessment.
  • Ponder what prerequisite skills are necessary for students to have in order to be successful on this assignment/assessment and list them.
  • Determine whether these prerequisite skills are reasonable for students to have already mastered prior to beginning your course.
    • If not, these are the skills you will want to scaffold into your current course in order to better prepare learners to be successful on the major assignments/assessments.
  • Look at the scope of the course and come up with mini assignments or learning experiences that can be purposefully introduced throughout the schedule of sessions in a way that offers learners time to learn and practice these prerequisite skills.
  • Create a curriculum map or outline of how each major assignment/assessment is scaffolded.
  • Learners should be made aware of this scaffolding; be transparent about how you designed their learning experiences to work together in a relevant and logical way.
  • If you are the lead on this course, make sure that anyone else who teaches it understands the rationale behind the design of each major assignment/assessment and includes the scaffolded experiences. Avoid using scholarly jargon in your rationale so that the purpose of your design is clear for everyone who encounters these learning experiences.

For examples of scaffolding assignments, go here »

Hogan, K., & Pressley, M. (Eds.). (1997). Scaffolding student learning: Instructional approaches and issues. Louiseville, Quebec: Brookline Books.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes (J. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, & E. Souberman, Eds. & Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Dr. Vicki Caruana is an assistant professor at Regis University, College for Professional Studies, School of Education & Counseling.