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How to scaffold learning in three steps

What are the best ways to support students to build upon their learning? This teacher shares his tips

Scaffolding

What are the best ways to support students to build upon their learning? This teacher shares his tips

Being able to provide your students with effective scaffolding is essential for their learning; the idea of teaching a new topic to a student without putting the correct support in place is equivalent to building a house without foundations.

Learning needs to be built up slowly, starting with appropriate supports, which can then be systematically removed. Scaffolding reduces students' cognitive load, allowing them to access and get to grips with unfamiliar tasks in the early stages of learning something new.  

But what should effective scaffolding look like? Here are the three approaches that I find most useful.

1. Modelling outcomes

For some students, it can be a real challenge to conceptualise the expected outcome of a task. Simply showing them what a good response should look like can be enormously helpful. By demonstrating how to answer a question or complete a particular piece of work prior to students attempting it for themselves, you make your requirements more explicit for every member of the class.

If you can also share the success criteria for the task (in the form of a mark scheme, for example), this will be even more powerful.

2. Completing checklists

Giving students a checklist of criteria to meet when answering a question or completing a task is a really simple way of scaffolding. A checklist provides a visual prompt and gives students an idea of how many steps they need to take to be successful, as well as the order in which they should take them.

I find that this type of scaffolding is not only useful when introducing students to a new task, but also brilliant for revision.

3. Thinking aloud

Talking through your own thought processes as you complete a task is one of the most effective ways to demonstrate to students how you apply logic and prior learning to the crafting of a response.

Talking through the steps required for tasks and vocalising example phrases that you might use in your own writing shows students that a good response does not come automatically to anyone, but that it takes careful thought and planning – even for a teacher.

What not to do

I usually find that these three methods do the trick when it comes to getting scaffolding right – but there are also some pitfalls to watch out for.

Firstly, remember that scaffolding is only effective if it is systematically removed as learning is consolidated. Leaving the supports in place for too long will mean that learners become reliant on them, which can hinder their progress, especially in exams. Make sure that you plan carefully when to remove the support.

Secondly, I’ve heard teachers say that scaffolding means you’re “giving the students the answers”. To those teachers I would say that if you feel that this is what you are doing, then you are not scaffolding correctly. Scaffolding must be pitched in such a way that it provides a level of challenge to your students, not in a way that limits discovery or opportunities for students to solve problems for themselves.

Adam Riches is a specialist leader of education and lead teacher in English

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