Scaffolding for Successful Learning

The Innovative Instructor likes the concept of scaffolding. Not the architectural structure,Construction workers climbing a scaffold. but the support faculty can provide for students in the classroom. Two previous posts, Scaffolding Part 2: Build Your Students’ Notetaking Skills (March 29, 2017) and Scaffolding: Teach your students how to read a journal article (February 28, 2017) looked at ways in which instructors can give students a framework to improve their skills and help them succeed. In an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Traditional Teaching May Deepen Inequality. Can a Different Approach Fix It?  (Beckie Supiano, May 6, 2018) instructor Kelly A. Hogan asks, “Doesn’t everybody like some structure or guidance? Why do we treat learning as something different or special?”

Ten years ago, Hogan, now STEM-Teaching Associate Professor and Assistant Dean of Instructional Innovation at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was presented with data on students’ grades in her introductory level biology class and grasped the impact that inequities in K-12 education have. “About one in 14 white students earned a D or F in the course. About one in seven Latino/a students received those grades. For black students, it was one in three.” She was directly contributing to the leaky STEM pipeline—students who failed her course were unlikely to continue in a STEM field.

Faculty may recognize the racial gaps in education that first year college students bring to the classroom. They may see these as “inevitable inequities” revealing problems that are too vast for them, as instructors, to overcome. Hogan saw it differently. The gap was her problem and she became convinced that traditional undergraduate teaching—lectures, reading assignments, high-stakes assessments—was making it worse. Specifically, students whose high schools had not prepared them for college-level work were failing, not because they weren’t capable of doing that work, “…but because no one has taught them how to navigate the system.” That includes knowing how to take notes in lectures and on reading assignments, how to prepare for writing papers and taking tests, and how (and where) to ask for help when needed.

Hogan taught courses with 300 or more students and had a lot of student data, so she could see patterns and trends. And because she also ran study-skills workshops, she had strategies that would help students succeed. She now uses a pedagogical approach called inclusive teaching. “Inclusive teaching has two main components: putting more structure into a course, giving clear instructions so that all students know what to do before, during, and after class; and thoughtfully facilitating class discussion, so that everyone can participate.”

Hogan flipped her course so that students spend class time doing active learning exercises rather than listing to her lecture. She was explicit about her motives and how students would benefit. “She emphasized the habits of a successful student and focused on the importance of practice. She broke down the things students could do before, during, and after class to give themselves the best chances of performing well. Then she made those tasks mandatory, and a factor in students’ grades.” The article details some of the practices. Her course syllabus illustrates how she communicates these to her students.

Even in a class with a 300 plus enrollment, held in an auditorium designed for lecturing, Hogan has students working in assigned groups on projects. She moves around the room to oversee their work. Students use smart phones as classroom polling devices to answer questions, opening an opportunity for discussion. Hogan facilitates class discussions in ways to equalize participation.

The article goes on to detail how two of Hogan’s “converts” have implemented inclusive teaching in their own classrooms. Hogan runs workshops on inclusive teaching that include an unusual startup activity that clearly illustrates the educational inequity gap for incoming college students. At one workshop after completing the initial task, attendees turned to what might be done to remedy the problem. “Inequity, Hogan suggested, is not intractable. Even small changes in teaching can help counteract it. ‘Adding structure to the learning environment,’ Hogan said, ‘can mitigate unfairness, build feelings of inclusion, and promote student success.’”

Changing demographics mean that many students arrive at colleges and universities lacking high school preparation that used to be taken for granted. We can’t afford to shrug off responsibility for ensuring that all of our students can succeed. As Hogan points out, the impact on our society going forward is too great. Rather, instructors must consider how to level the field and provide guidance and scaffolding to support their students in successful learning.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

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