Assignment Scaffolding

Scaffolding is a common problem solving strategy when people are faced with complex cognitive tasks.  While most people have committed the times tables to memory, long multiplication typically requires a piece of paper where we record the steps: the paper functions as a mental scaffold and aid to short-term memory.    Scaffolding activities deliberately in instructional design can help students succeed by breaking complicated tasks and content into manageable parts of gradually increasing complexity, offering help in the form of co-curricular workshops, work-in-progress feedback, reference resources and instructional tools.  Transparency in goals and process is key so that students acquire best research and writing practices as they complete class projects in parts, across several feedback cycles instead of obtaining just one summative grade.

PDF: Assignment Scaffolding by Allyson Skene and Sarah Fedko.  Instructional Scaffolding at Wikipedia.


Scaffolded assignments can include, for example:

  1. submitting drafts of work to peers, mentors or staff for formative feedback
  2. examining detailed marking rubrics for assignments at the begining so as to clarify the core objectives of the work 
  3. looking at exemplars of other work to assess which strategies really worked and what problems to avoid.
  4. project management intelligence -- helping students work out how much time to take on each stage of the academic work


How can educational technology help with scaffolding assignments?

Q&A: iClicker, the live audience response system, is a great way for students to review concepts in class and in context and also provide feedback on their learning so as to gradually escalate the difficulty of the work.  It's also a great way to conduct engaging class discussions with large groups of students on open ended questions of personal interpretation and belief.  In the process students forge connections in the academic domains they are studying. The test/survey tools in Quercus/Canvas provide a similar ability to conduct Q&A in asynchronous or time-shifted mode online.  I give the students a brief quiz after posted readings, and then we examine the main points that we will be building on in future lectures while looking at some open ended questions which can be the subject of future student essays and projects.

One Minute Essay is brief explicative writing on a topic where the intention is formative: a summary of concepts, statement of confusion or brief concept map diagram.  Online and time-shifted, it could be a brief comment on the discussion board or in a journal summarizing in a paragraph a chapter of learning or a published article.  Live in class, it can be facilitated with the Quercus Blackboard Collaborate 'chat' module.  Social media such as Twitter might be an option for this kind of rapid feedback on a lecture, but this approach has pitfalls, be sure to read the FAQ.  For concept maps, Prezi and Mindomo are also useful tools.

Rubric might be considered the concept of scaffolding applied to evaluation: it breaks the parts of an assessment into manageable criteria which have scaled descriptors. Rubrics can help instructors and TAs explain evaluations to students, students understand their grades, and help them reflect on their progress.  A really excellent technology oriented rubric for assessing writing in an online system like Quercus/Canvas is offered by the Ont. Institute for Studies in Education online learning support site.  It has two parts: performance measures, indicating the summative assessment from instructor or TA, and a self assessment, which students complete to reflect on where they need to improve.

Screen shot of performance measures online writing rubric

[More: Grading Rubrics in the Quercus LME...]


Research Review - Turnitin and TinEye, which are normally used for plagiarism detection, can be used in a formative way to help students appreciate the appropriate level of citation for writing and images in academic research.

Writing Review - there are a large variety of technology tools that can be used to help students network with peers and professionals so as to receive help with writing.  iWrite, the interactive writing tutoring environment is a proven solution used effectively over many courses.   In time Peer Scholar, which has been used with great success in UTSC Psychology might be accessible to a greater number of courses.  It is also possible to set up a Quercus or Canvas peer feedback assignment, so as to create opportunities for reflection.

Project Management - many students struggle with a variety of deadlines and leaving enough time to complete the parts of an assignment.  The assignment calculator can help!  Separate your assignment into scaffolded parts, assign a percentage of the total time, and students can generate a custom PDF with clickable links or register and receive emails to keep them on schedule, directing them to expert resources and services.  Contact your local subject liaison librarian to obtain help setting up an assignment in the calculator.



DePaul University, Chicago:  Learning Commons Rubric Web Site

University of Wollongong, Australia   Scaffolding Your Teaching: Practical Advice for Teaching Staff