Scaffolding for Learning

Back in March, my colleague Olga wrote about authentic assessment. In her post, she noted “you scaffold the assignments (activities) and put together course materials necessary to help students do their best in achieving the desired result.” In this Vision post, we’ll take a look at how scaffolding and formative assessment can foster student success throughout your courses. Together, scaffolding and formative assessment should provide students the valuable, low-stakes practice opportunities that will lead them to success in the course’s summative assessment.

Instructional scaffolding refers to the supports that faculty provide to help students learn new tasks or concepts they may struggle with on their own. Similar to the scaffolding construction workers use, these are temporary supports that are removed once students are able to accomplish the task or demonstrate mastery of a concept.

Dr. Vicki Caruana, of Regis University’s College of Professional Studies, discusses scaffolding and provides some examples in this article.

You may be asking yourself, “So how does this foster student success?” Scaffolding essentially breaks learning into manageable “chunks” and provides appropriate tools or strategies for achieving or mastering each chunk. A spoken explanation of an idea or concept might be accompanied by PowerPoint slides and/or a discussion or writing task that allows students to define or apply what they’ve learned in their own manner.

Formative assessment is, like scaffolding, a tool to provide students feedback for improving their learning and to identify strengths and weaknesses in their work. It is often used in conjunction with scaffolding. Also described as assessment FOR learning (versus assessment OF learning), formative assessment occurs alongside learning and serves a dual role: it allows students low-stakes practice opportunities while also allowing the instructor to gauge student learning.

Here’s a chart that nicely summarizes the differences between formative and summative assessment, and provides examples of each.

One of the advantages of formative assessment is that it can allow students to practice “pieces” of their summative assessments. For example, in a course that asks students to develop an educational presentation, a formative assessment might involve peer review of specific elements of the presentation, with peers utilizing the actual grading rubric to guide their feedback. I like this strategy in particular because it not only provides the students feedback from their classmates, but also the opportunity for students to more critically examine their own work after evaluating that of their peers.

In her 2005 article entitled “Linking Formative Assessment to Scaffolding,” Lorrie Shepard notes, “Our aim should be to establish classroom practices that encourage peer assessment, regard errors as opportunities for learning, and promote shared thinking. This implies a profound cultural transformation: classrooms in which both students and teachers focus on learning rather than grades.” By using scaffolding and formative assessment as described, we can meet those goals.

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