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Scaffolds for Learning (not just for skyscrapers)

The word “scaffold” might conjure up images of construction sites, but scaffolding also refers to a teaching technique that can help students bridge the gap between their current levels of knowledge or skill and the knowledge or skill levels we want them to attain.

Scaffolds in teaching serve the same function as scaffolds for construction: just as construction workers need temporary support structures during the initial phases of building, our students need support and guidance as they begin to learn a new or complex concept or skill that they are unlikely to master on their own. Effective learning happens in this “zone of proximal development,” where students can stretch, with appropriate support, to accomplish tasks they couldn’t achieve alone.

Among the challenges for us, when we’re building scaffolds, are our own expert blind spots: we tend to forget what it’s like not to know the material we’ve spend decades studying, so we forget to break down the thinking tasks for novice learners. But if students typically struggle with a concept or skill, or if you’re not satisfied with their performance, they would probably benefit from stronger scaffolding.

So how do you build scaffolding? One effective approach consists of 4 steps: First, the instructor explains or models the task. Next, the whole class works on an example together. Third, students work in pairs or groups to practice the skill/discuss the topic, and finally, the individual student is given the opportunity to practice and, ideally, receive feedback (Spectrum, 2008).

Scaffolding can also help you cultivate a supportive learning environment, since it demonstrates to students that you are willing to serve as a guide, mentor, or coach—as opposed to simply a disciplinary expert.

"Scaffolding Student Learning," a brief Faculty Focus piece, provides useful ideas for getting started.

If you’d like to learn more about scaffolding, or other teaching tools, please consider signing up for a faculty reading group, or email Leslie at We look forward to working with you!

Sign up now for FALL 2017 Faculty Reading Groups!

What The Best College Teachers Do
Tuesdays, 9/19, 9/26, 10/3, 2:00-4:00 pm

How Learning Works
Wednesdays, 9/27, 10/4, 10/11, 12:00-2:00 pm

Learner Centered Teaching
Tuesdays, 10/10, 10/17, 10/24, 12:00-2:00 pm

Make It Stick
Mondays, 10/9, 10/16, 10/23, 2:00-4:00 pm

Now You See It
Wednesdays, 11/1, 11/8, 11/15, 12:00-2:00 pm

Lunch will be provided at the noon meetings; coffee and snacks will be provided at the afternoon meetings. To RSVP, just email and we’ll send you your copy of the book.