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Center for Faculty Development

Scaffolding to Encourage Student Motivation for Challenging Content

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Scaffolded instruction provides support to learners to complete tasks they would be unlikely to complete successfully unassisted (Belland, 2013). In educational contexts, scaffolded instruction simply means to break up larger assignments or concepts into smaller segments, providing less support in subsequent segments, as students master concepts and skills along the way and can complete tasks independently (Rosenshine & Meister, 1992). Use of scaffolded instruction is particularly common in problem-based learning, such as math and science courses (Mayer, 1998). 

Scaffolded instruction may have multiple functions in increasing student learning. Hill and Hannafin (2001) describe four purposes of scaffolding.

  • Conceptual- Used to help define what to consider related to a topic and provide background or basic knowledge
  • Metacognitive- Assist with the development of know how to think, or learning how to learn, increasing learners’ reflection on the process of learning
  • Procedural- Used to help learners understand a set of procedures or use of a resource
  • Strategic- Targets learning alternative ways to complete a task

Benefits of Scaffolding

Scaffolding should be used to meet course objectives, particularly for content or skills that are more complex or difficult to complete. Beyond this, this instruction practice can lead to several benefits (Northern Illinois University Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning (NIUCITL), 2012):

  • Motivates students how to learn
  • Challenges students to engage in deep learning
  • Increases likelihood that students will meet associated course objectives
  • Provides students opportunities for peer learning and support
  • Can be applied to several different tasks in the same course
  • Helps facilitate an environment that fosters students’ success and being able to make mistakes safely

Using Scaffolding

The basic process of scaffolded instruction involves the following steps (Larkin, 2002), particularly when used for learning procedural knowledge.

  1. The instructor does it. The instructor models task completions, often talking aloud about the thought process used to complete the task.
  2. The class does it. The class works collaboratively with the instructor to complete the task.
  3. The group does it. Completion of the tasks occurs in small groups or pairs of students.
  4. The student does it. Students complete the task independently.

Example Use of Scaffolding

Research papers, especially in lower-level courses, may seem like a daunting task for students. Use of scaffolding can help improve students’ procedural knowledge of the writing process and improve motivation to complete the task. An example of the steps used to scaffold completing a research paper are outlined below but may involve scaffolding each step of the process as needed. Depending on the skill-level of the students, some aspects may be omitted, such as getting feedback on a topic or submission of a bibliography.

  1. The instructor introduces details on the requirements of the paper assignment.
  2. Students are given the first assignment of generating a paper topic with support on the intended scope of topics from the instructors. If needed, students may discuss in groups or get feedback from the instructor on the topic to ensure it fits the assignment guidelines.
  3. For students new to finding sources, the instructor may provide resources and model how to find appropriate sources. Submission of an annotated bibliography may provide the instructor with the opportunity to provide feedback on the quality of the source material or offer other suggested references.
  4. The instructor may model developing a paper outline to organize writing the paper and/or require submission of a draft outline for accountability and feedback.
  5. An opportunity to complete a peer review of a paper draft may help students learn from peers on the writing process and get feedback on their work.
  6. Before the final submission, students may be encouraged to learn and apply the grading rubric to self-assess their papers.

Challenges and Considerations to Using Scaffolding

Larkin (2002) notes there are a few considerations that may make use of scaffolding more challenging or inappropriate for the context.

  • Only use scaffolding when appropriate- Not all tasks may require scaffolding. Assessing your students’ skill-level may help determine if they have the pre-requisite skills or knowledge for the tasks you are assigning. If students have the foundational knowledge and skills, the task may not need scaffolding. Knowing the content well may help identify topics that tend to be challenging for most students, and more appropriate for use of scaffolded instruction.
  • Know the curriculum - As mentioned, knowing the pre-requisite courses your students have completed, as well as knowing the content in our course can help determine when scaffolding tasks may be necessary. Scaffolding can extend the amount of time to cover topics or tasks, so being familiar with the pace of your course content can also ensure you have the time needed to use scaffolding effectively.
  • Generate multiple prompts- In the initial stages of implementing scaffolded instruction, using prompts to get started may result in students failing to understand. Having alternative prompts to help lead them towards understanding the material or the solution may help increase their feelings of success.
  • Create a positive environment- As scaffolding is used for more challenging tasks, it is expected that students will find the initial steps challenging and they may not be successful. Creating an environment that is supportive, conveying positive feedback and encouragement, is necessary to reduce feeling discouraged.

Suggested Resources

Brandsford, J., Brown, A., & Cocking, R. (2000). How people learn: Mind, experience, and school. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Larkin, M. (2002). Using scaffolded instruction to optimize learning.  ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Instruction.

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