Discussion, as a whole class and in small groups, has always been a vital part of my classroom practice. Sometimes, though, when I pose a question to get things started, students don’t answer right away. Maybe we’re trying to identify unspoken assumptions so that we can evaluate them: “why do people go to college?” Maybe we’re unpacking something that seems self-evident, but is actually complex: “what is time?” Rather than answering my own question, or taking things in a new direction, I like to let the silence deepen. Soon, everyone will start looking down at their notebooks, turning book pages, glancing at the clock. Most of the time, a hero will speak up and either answer or ask me to rephrase. But if no one does? I’ll sometimes ask: “Is this question too hard? Or too simple?” This move resets our conversation and invites students either to give the question a try (“to get jobs, obviously”), or to begin a conversation about why it’s hard to (“what do you mean, ‘time’?”).
Questions that are too easy might not stir up interest. Students hesitate to say out loud what they assume everybody else already knows. Questions that are too difficult can be scary. Answering may feel risky. I try to pitch instruction somewhere along this continuum, and I invite students into the process. I want to challenge students enough to engage them, while helping them feel confident enough to be willing to venture into difficult terrain.
Researchers call this middle ground the zone of proximal development, and it’s where the best learning happens. To help students get there, curriculum specialists urge us to plan activities students will be able to master with appropriate support. (When students work on tasks they can easily accomplish alone, or tasks that totally exceed their abilities, learning doesn’t happen.) This method of planning goes by a construction metaphor: “scaffolding.” Instructors create introductory tasks or lessons that help students develop increasingly advanced skills and construct increasingly advanced knowledge. Over time, students move beyond this introductory material and can meet progressive objectives independently.
Once you’ve generated and shared outcomes for a course or unit (see my last post on backward design), you’ll have moved on to developing the series of activities you’re hoping students will complete to achieve them. Over the course of this process, you break down the summative task you expect students to perform into smaller, manageable pieces. (Some instructors take this even further, trading massive, high-stakes exams for smaller assessments along the way.) If students in a history course are writing a long, thesis-driven research paper, for instance, you might ask them to generate sample thesis statements in class, and then, take a look at a sampling of those statements together, talking frankly about strengths and weaknesses. If you assess individual statements and give feedback in advance of the final due date, you’re not only helping students develop a central element of their projects. You’re also helping them build confidence by giving them the opportunity either to succeed early or to make changes for success later. (Find more ideas for scaffolding research papers here.)
To build in scaffolding during class sessions, you can follow this basic progression: 1) model the task for students, 2) lead the class to complete the task together, 2) ask students to complete the task in small groups, and finally, 4) ask students to complete the task individually. (Northern Illinois University’s Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning fleshes out these steps, citing foundational research). Scaffolding can look different across the disciplines, too.
Humanists and social scientists might find Inside Higher Ed’s discussion of how to scaffold conversation after the pandemic compelling. Scientists across the disciplines might find resources for scaffolding research methods in this study from a group at Emory University.
In any case, scaffolding works best when we integrate the activities we facilitate first with the more complex performances we expect later. If I planned to ask students to apply key disciplinary concepts to answer a series of essay questions at mid-term, I wouldn’t prepare them for this task with weekly multiple-choice quizzes checking only for concept comprehension. I’d want to give students a chance to practice, and receive feedback on, applying concepts, as the exam will require. Integrating practice and performance can give students a sense of self-efficacy, too, as small successes along the way prepare students to tackle bigger assessments.