Scaffolding Learning in the Online Classroom

The online student population is becoming increasingly complex. Although people typically think of online students as older working professionals, Clinefelter, Aslanian, and Magda (2019) note that this population is beginning to trend younger. However, this trend doesn’t mean that younger students are simply replacing older ones. Rather, online education has grown in such a way that its students represent an increasingly diverse population in terms of age, work experience, and educational background.

Because online instructors can’t physically see their students, helping all these students succeed can seem overwhelming. You might have a more difficult time identifying when students are struggling, making it challenging to support each student. However, if you design your course to meet a diverse set of needs, you can ensure that students receive the support they need to grow and succeed in your course. In this article, we’ll explore the concept of scaffolding, which can help you do just that. We’ll address what scaffolding is, why it’s valuable, and how you can begin scaffolding your online course.

What Is Scaffolding?

Simply put, scaffolding is an instructional method that progressively moves students toward greater independence and understanding during the learning process. Similar to how builders require scaffolding during construction to access new heights, instructional scaffolding helps students navigate coursework and accomplish tasks they otherwise might not have been able to. This idea is influenced by Vygotsky’s (1978) concept of the zone of proximal development, which is based on three points of the learning process:

  • What the learner cannot do
  • What the learner can do with assistance
  • What the learner can do unaided

Caruana (2012) notes that, to provide students with consistent support, “it’s important to determine the area (zone) between what a student can accomplish unaided and what that same student can accomplish with assistance.” In most cases, scaffolding will take the form of providing support such as instructional material, practice activities, and other course elements to help students independently demonstrate mastery of learning objectives. In terms of the zone of proximal development, scaffolding is essentially what takes students from what they can do with assistance to what they can do unaided.

In their review of literature on the topic, Jumaat and Tasir (2014) identify four types of scaffolding that can occur in online courses:

  • Procedural scaffolding, which helps students use the tools available to them
  • Conceptual scaffolding, which helps students determine what to consider in learning (that is, it guides them to prioritize fundamental concepts)
  • Strategic scaffolding, which suggests alternative ways for students to tackle the learning problems they encounter
  • Metacognitive scaffolding, which guides students in the thinking process and helps them self-assess during learning

Each type of scaffolding can be essential to your students’ success. Procedural scaffolding, for instance, can play a critical role in ensuring that students can use the tools in your learning management system, and conceptual scaffolding can help guide students’ consumption of more complex materials. Similarly, strategic scaffolding helps students find a new way around a roadblock, and metacognitive scaffolding encourages them to take a moment to evaluate their progress in the course.

Regardless of the type of scaffolding, the core benefit remains consistent: It helps students move toward being able to complete a task unaided. Whether the goal is to use a course tool or master a learning objective, scaffolding simply ensures that students receive the support they need.

Why Should I Scaffold My Course?

As you might imagine, scaffolding requires additional effort on an instructor’s part, particularly in an online context, but the benefits make the work worthwhile. Cho and Cho (2016) note that some students aren’t comfortable reaching out to the instructor, meaning that these students actually could be avoiding the very support they need to succeed. Building scaffolding into your course’s design, however, addresses this problem by incorporating support directly into the course content. 

Northern Illinois University’s Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center (n.d.) notes some additional ways students benefit from instructional scaffolding:

  • Scaffolding challenges students through deep learning and discovery.
  • Scaffolding helps learners become better students.
  • Scaffolding increases the likelihood of student success.
  • Scaffolding individualizes instruction.
  • Scaffolding creates opportunities for peer instruction.

Scaffolding can also benefit the instructor by streamlining student support. By designing a course that offers students guidance or assistance as they need it, you increase the likelihood that students will independently explore solutions to questions and issues they have. This frees you to tackle other tasks such as grading, responding to discussion forum posts, and addressing additional questions that might arise.

How Can I Scaffold My Course?

Caruana (2012) suggests that when determining how to scaffold or what to scaffold, “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.” Following are just a few of the strategies you can use to begin scaffolding your course.

Breaking Down Assessments

One of the more widely known approaches to scaffolding involves breaking assessments into more manageable subtasks. More often than not, the assessments you’d want to break down are summative assessments (the higher-stakes assessments that instructors typically use as a benchmark to measure student learning). By dividing up these assessments into smaller components, you save students from having to pool a tremendous amount of time and energy at the benchmark point in your course.

When using this strategy, you can create steps that guide students to complete the assessment as the course goes on. That way, they’re doing the same amount of work, but not all at once. Take a final essay, for example. Instead of asking students to write a long piece of work during the last module of the course, you could scaffold it by creating steps such as submitting a literature review, completing an outline, writing a rough draft, and so on.

Another benefit to this approach is that it allows you to provide students with feedback on their progress. Let’s return to our final essay example. If students were to write the essay during the last module of the course, they wouldn’t have much opportunity for revision, correction, or improvement. If that assessment were scaffolded, however, the instructor could look at each of those steps and take corrective measures such as pointing out dated research in a literature review, addressing poor structure in the outline, and catching misused sources in a rough draft. Essentially, the instructor would be able to help students correct these issues as they arise, making it more likely that students will meet their learning objectives when they submit that final essay.

Aligning Assessments

Another scaffolding strategy you can use is to make sure that your assessments are related to other elements of your course. Even if you’re using several different assessments (rather than one broken-up summative assessment), consider the relationship between your assessments and whether they prepare students for other course elements. Ideally, assessments should work together to gradually prepare students for what they’ll be doing at a later date, which can help build confidence and familiarity and establish relevance.

For instance, if the last module of an education course requires students to write a classroom management plan, some of the course’s discussion forums could ask students to consider different classroom management styles and critique case studies involving classroom management plans. Although these activities don’t build directly toward the summative assessment like the example in the previous section, they scaffold the instruction by helping students consider important factors that will impact their final submission.

Providing Examples

Sometimes, no matter how clear your learning objectives are or how much you’ve communicated expectations through messages and announcements, students need to see what you expect of them. By providing examples of the work students need to do to earn a desirable grade, you establish a model they can refer to as they create or complete their assessments.

Providing examples is a scaffold in the sense that students can compare the work they’re completing to the work they know you’re expecting. This increases the likelihood that students will be able to identify their deficiencies, make corrections, and ultimately master your course’s learning objectives.

However, simply providing examples may not be sufficient. Whether you provide examples of exemplary work or lackluster work, Sardo and Sindelar (2019) suggest that you also explain the criteria that make each example good or bad. When you do so, students won’t just blindly model what they see; rather, they’ll engage in a more thorough process of determining what makes their work good or bad.

Encouraging Metacognition

Metacognition refers to a student’s ability to evaluate his or her own learning. The ultimate goal of scaffolding is for students to be able to master your course’s learning objectives without aid, and a student’s ability to independently identify his or her strengths and weaknesses is a critical step toward that type of mastery. With this in mind, one scaffolding method you can employ is reflection: requiring students to look back at their work and identify what they’re doing well and where they’re struggling. Huang (2017) gives three tips for developing this type of activity for your online course:

  • Begin reflection where the learners are. It’s important to be intentional about the goal of a reflective exercise. Set expectations and clarify assumptions with students so that everyone is on the same page about the activity’s goals.
  • Provide scaffolding to suit your learners’ reflective continuum. That’s right — we’re talking about scaffolding the scaffolding. Essentially, some students might struggle with reflection and need some guidance. For these students, Huang (2017) suggests using a few guiding questions drawing on the five Rs:
    • Recalling
    • Recapturing (capturing emotions, accomplishments, challenges)
    • Relating (identifying connections with previous materials or experiences)
    • Rationalizing (identifying patterns, creating meaning)
    • Redirecting (thinking about the future)
  • Give learners the freedom to experiment with different modalities of reflection. Reflection is a deeply personal exercise, so it’s appropriate to give students the chance to reflect in a form that’s most effective for them. With this in mind, consider allowing for different types of submissions, such as videos, podcasts, or mind maps.

By encouraging students to identify their strengths and weaknesses, you help them become aware of their regular accomplishments and struggles, which can help them focus their efforts accordingly as they progress through other parts of your course.

Chunking Materials

Chunking refers to breaking down larger pieces of instruction into smaller, more manageable “chunks” for students to consume. Chunking is commonly considered a best practice of course design, and Schutt (2003) argues that it can be an effective scaffolding tool as well. By separating a large piece of text or a long video into smaller components, you provide students with breaks that they can use to reflect, question, or even reach out for help if they need it. An added benefit of chunking is that it can help prevent cognitive overload.

Conclusion

Whatever your subject matter, your online course will likely contain students with diverse needs. Although this can be daunting when you can’t actually see the students, by using scaffolds to address the gaps between what students can do with assistance and what they can do unaided, you increase the likelihood that students will succeed in your course and master your learning objectives. With this in mind, here are a few key takeaways from this article:

  • Scaffolding is largely influenced by the concept of zone of proximal development. Ideally, it helps support students as they move toward being able to complete a task without aid.
  • Scaffolding provides support to help students who struggle in your course. Whereas in the traditional classroom you can typically see when students are struggling, scaffolding helps address similar concerns that might be less visible online.
  • Scaffolding can take several different forms. From breaking down larger assessments into subtasks to providing examples and encouraging reflection, the goal of scaffolding is to create opportunities for students to receive structured support and grow as learners.

References

Caruana, V. (2012). Scaffolding student learning: Tips for getting started. Retrieved from http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/instructional-design/scaffolding-student-learning-tips-for-getting-started/

Cho, M.-H., & Cho, Y. (2016). Online instructors’ use of scaffolding strategies to promote interactions: A scale development study. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 17(6). Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.19173/irrodl.v17i6.2816

Clinefelter, D. L., Aslanian, C. B., & Magda, A. J. (2019). Online college students 2019: Comprehensive data on demands and preferences. Louisville, KY: Wiley edu, LLC

Huang, L. (2017, November 6). Three ideas for implementing learner reflection. Retrieved from https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-and-learning/three-ideas-implementing-learner-reflection/

Jumaat, N. F., & Tasir, Z. (2014). Instructional scaffolding in online learning environment: A meta-analysis. Proceedings of the IEEE, 74–77. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/269033099_Instructional_Scaffolding_in_Online_Learning_Environment_A_Meta-analysis

Northern Illinois University. (n.d.). Instructional scaffolding to support learning. Retrieved from https://www.niu.edu/facdev/_pdf/guide/strategies/instructional_scaffolding_to_improve_learning.pdf

Sardo, C., & Sindelar, A. (2019). Scaffolding online student success. Retrieved from https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/online-education/scaffolding-online-student-success/

Schutt, M. (2003). Scaffolding for online learning environments: Instructional design strategies that provide online learner support. Educational Technology, 43(6), 28–35. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/44428859

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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