Initial Publication Date: June 24, 2010

Decide How Much Scaffolding You Will Supply


Scaffolding is the frame or structure you provide for an assignment. Scaffolding is important for several reasons. An unstructured assignment is more difficult to complete since students may not be clear on what you want them to do. Even if they do understand the goal, they may not think to include all the steps you wish to see. Thus, the simplest form of scaffolding is to explicitly identify everything students should do to complete the assignment. An unstructured assignment also is more difficult to grade since different students may take the assignment in different directions.
  • The earlier the assignment is in the curriculum (introductory vs. senior capstone), and the earlier it is in a course, the more structure you should give students. In a more advanced assignment, it's appropriate to expect students to infer the appropriate steps, but in a more basic assignment, if you don't tell them what you want, you are unlikely to get it.
  • Another form of scaffolding is to create assignments which build on one another. Early assignments can be used to help students develop skills for subsequent, more complex assignments. Earlier assignments don't have to be formal papers; some could be given as exploratory tasks or as problems for small group discussion and oral arguments. If one assignment requires students to produce a table or a graph, a simple earlier assignment could be designed to teach this skill (e.g., an assignment asking students to design a graph; to write the title, legends, and labels; and to reference the graph in a short piece of text). Examples of "built-on" assignments might include:
    • In an economics course, one short paper might have students explain how the model of supply and demand can be applied to immigration reform. The next paper might incorporate a supply and demand analysis into a policy brief that includes data on the number of immigrants and their average skill level.
    • A research paper could be divided into multiple parts (e.g a proposal, a literature survey, a theoretical analysis, an empirical analysis, etc.) each with a separate deadline.
The last assignment for a course often brings together a number of learning outcomes connected both to subject matter and to methods of inquiry, analysis, and argument. By imagining the project you want students to complete at the end of the course, you can assess the project's difficulty level, analyze its component parts, and identify the "moves" students will need to make to complete it successfully. Such scaffolding is particularly helpful when you have students in your class with a range of backgrounds and levels of familiarity with quantitative reasoning.
  • Another aspect of scaffolding QW assignments involves the data. Will you provide the data, ask students to collect the data from a source you specify, ask students to find data to meet your parameters, or ask students to construct the data (e.g. survey)?