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Scaffolding for Instructors Who Don’t Have Time for Scaffolding

By Paul Dagnall

I knew a math teacher at a local vocational school, who claimed that as he began teaching a new group of students, he assumed they were incapable of performing basic arithmetic. 

In his case he was putting the first of his scaffolds quite low. As his students proved their abilities he raised his expectations. Although a bit extreme, this is the general idea of scaffolding.

But let’s be honest. You don’t have time for this, do you? 

Your syllabus is already demanding on class time and baby steps were supposed to be covered by prerequisites, and if they wanted you to re-teach, they should pay you to teach two classes!

We get it. So the approach to scaffolding we want to share with you is something that can hopefully fit your situation.

Note: The plan shared below is designed with a technical course in mind but can certainly be adapted to any course where students may struggle and benefit from scaffolding.


Step 1: Scare them with a pretest

As early as possible give your students a pre-test that will expose weaknesses that need to be addressed before they can be successful in your class. “Scare” them a bit by letting them know they will not succeed without improving in the exposed areas. 

Then quickly reassure them with the next steps.

Step 2: Limit technical concepts for two weeks

This step will need to be planned out before the class starts, but the students will encounter it as the second step in the progression. 

Think about it this way: If your students can’t ski yet, don’t expect them to learn the basics while also attempting a black diamond ski slope. Instead, allow them to learn the basics while they're learning the nuances of the equipment or while planning an upcoming ski trip.

The idea here is to structure the first two weeks of your course to be nontechnical or at least less technical. Cover concepts such as principles, properties, rules, or even use this time to introduce requirements for later projects. What this will do is give your struggling students a chance to catch up (thanks to Step 3) while they are progressing through two weeks of important but less-technical content. 

Step 3: Pair Targeted content with self-assessment 

Now comes the actual scaffolding part. Guide your students to focus on the areas the pre-test identified as weaknesses. You want targeted instructional content paired with self-check quizzes.

What resources are available to help students learn the concepts your pre-test will expose? 

  1. Does your book publisher provide something? 
  2. Are there some good lessons on YouTube? 
  3. The Center for Online Learning would be happy to help you create some video resources, lessons, and quizzes.

Step 4: Incentivize

Oftentimes the students that need this help the most are the least motivated to take steps to help themselves, so you need to provide an additional incentive. Consider how you can set up your gradebook to guide them into this. Extra credit could be an option. Use points to motivate them to improve their score when they retake the pre-test.

Step 5: Reassess and move on

Change the questions and provide a second pre-test at the end of the two weeks. If the struggling students show improvement - Woohoo! Mission accomplished! They will now be better prepared to succeed in your course.

If their scores do not improve, you may need to provide guidance on whether they should continue with the course, and since it’s only been two weeks, you still have time before the drop date. 

Either way, due to the restructuring described in step 2, you have not lost much class time. 

If you would like to talk through how to work something like this into your course the Center for Online Learning has instructional designers ready to help you. Please do not hesitate to reach out.


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