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The Research Is In

6 Foundational Ways to Scaffold Student Learning

A collection of evidence-backed tips to help students cross the bridge from confusion to clarity.

August 11, 2023

Good differentiation is one of the hardest bars to meet as a classroom teacher. Students have a wide range of skills and abilities, and they also come preloaded with different experiences, dispositions, and prior knowledge, making a one-size-fits-all pedagogical approach a pipe dream.

That’s why anytime you’re teaching a lesson, you should consider deploying scaffolds—“support that is tailored to students’ needs,” as defined by a 2015 study—to ensure that every student can keep pace. The benefits are hard to ignore: Advanced learners, who may easily grasp the material, will have more durable memories, while struggling students will receive the support they need to make learning more achievable.

Here are six essential scaffolding activities, all drawn from research, that can be used alongside your lessons to help all students succeed.

1. First, Clarity

Before jumping into a lesson, review your materials for brevity and clarity. All too often, students are stuck, not because the lesson is too difficult but because the instructions aren’t clear or handouts are haphazardly designed.

Audit your instructional materials year to year, with the aim of gradually simplifying and improving them. Another effective way to provide greater clarity is to use headings and annotations to direct student attention to key ideas. For example, the thoughtful use of underlining, highlighting, and arrows to call attention to crucial ideas can boost student retention by 36 percent, a 2020 study suggests. Don’t overdo it, though. Consider what is absolutely necessary and useful, and avoid extraneous details and eye-catching adornments, which can occupy valuable attentional resources and reduce comprehension.

Pro tip: After a lesson, check in with students to see how well they understood the directions and objectives. You may think that your lessons are the perfect balance of being brilliant and easy to grasp, but not every student will see things clearly. Highly effective teachers often check in with their students, asking questions such as “Are my lessons and assignments clear?” to unearth pain points, bottlenecks, and other obstacles, a 2019 study found.

2. Build Background Knowledge

Tackling a new topic without sufficient background knowledge is like exploring a cave without a flashlight: Without a foundation of familiar terms lighting up the path ahead, students will struggle to grasp the lesson. That’s because the brain always seeks connections to previously stored material, which ties ideas together and reinforces the conceptual scaffolding.

How important is background knowledge? According to a 2019 study of over 3,500 high school students learning about ecology, being unfamiliar with roughly 59 percent of terms in the topic resulted in “compromised” comprehension. If students didn’t know key terms like habitat or biodiversity, they had a harder time following a lesson, falling behind their peers who were also new to the lesson but had a stronger vocabulary to draw from.

Before exploring a new topic—or after having students read an introductory text—have students identify words that confuse them, or draw up your own list of academic terms that all students should know beforehand, which you can share on a word wall or play vocabulary games with. During a lesson, pause for a moment and explore those terms, so that all students can keep pace and not be tripped up by gaps in background knowledge. To get students to begin connecting new material to already-learned material, you can read an introductory text and have them engage in small group K-W-L activities, or you can sequence lessons so that overarching connections are made explicit, helping to reactivate prior knowledge on a regular basis.

3. Be MultiModal

Provide multiple ways for students to learn the material by pairing a written or verbal lesson with pictures, diagrams, or video, or by asking them to physically act out concepts, write songs, or reenact historical events. Relying on multiple sensory pathways encodes learning material more effectively—leading to more durable memories.

The research is clear, and the effect sizes are considerable. In a 2015 study, for example, researchers discovered that handing illustrated diagrams to students who listened to a physics lecture boosted performance on a follow-up test by 70 percent, compared with their peers who listened to the lecture with no visual aids. And a 2020 study found that 8-year-old students learning a new language were 73 percent more likely to remember vocabulary words if they acted them out—spreading their arms and pretending to fly when learning how to say “airplane” in German, for example.

4. Use Graphic Organizers and Anchor Charts

Visual scaffolds can serve as a road map for students, helping them navigate unfamiliar conceptual terrain by providing a bird’s-eye view of the lesson. Distilling a complex topic into a handful of key ideas not only promotes comprehension but also can greatly enhance long-term recall of the material.

When middle school students used graphic organizers while learning about the seasons, factual recall increased by 45 percent and comprehension by 64 percent, compared with their peers who weren’t given the scaffolding aids, a 2021 study found. Novice learners are often overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information presented in a lesson, the researchers observed, and have difficulty telling the difference between key ideas and supporting details. Graphic organizers and anchor charts, however, can guide “students’ selective attention” to what’s important, giving them a leg up compared with their peers.

In the early stages of learning—as students are grappling with unfamiliar information—it’s helpful to supply prompts, hints, or even partially completed anchor charts and graphic organizers to make learning more effective. Asking students to start from scratch can overload their working memory, but pre-filling core concepts in a graphic organizer can “scaffold and guide the learner’s cognitive processing,” resulting in a 155 percent boost to comprehension, according to the 2021 study referenced above.

5. Use Pre-lesson Activities

In a 2021 study, researchers concluded that giving students ungraded pre-lesson practice quizzes boosted follow-up tests of retention and transfer by 49 percent, compared with simply jumping into a lesson without any warm-up activities. Surprisingly, the researchers found that pre-testing also outperformed post-lesson practice quizzes as well, improving scores by 27 percent over the tried-and-true strategy.

While embedding practice tests during—and after—a lesson is an effective way to strengthen student memory for the material, pre-lesson quizzes provide a different benefit: They scaffold the to-be-learned material, helping students to organize their thoughts, sparking curiosity as they venture guesses, and encouraging them to “search for the correct answers” during the actual lesson, the researchers point out.

Periodically, you might start a new lesson by asking students to solve challenging questions—ones that are just beyond their ability to solve. Used strategically, in small doses and for high-value concepts, the approach helps students learn how to deal with frustration in a supportive, productive environment. While many will struggle, that’s the point, says learning scientist Manu Kapur. “These problems should be just beyond students’ reach—they’re designed in ways that will activate prior knowledge and motivate students, clarifying what they know and what they don’t know,” Kapur told Edutopia in 2022. “If the challenge hits that sweet spot, that’s where deep learning happens.” Let students explore different avenues, and then step in, building off their ideas and solutions as you elucidate and clarify, he suggests.

6. Ask Metacognitive Questions

When students encounter new material, it can feel like a flood, overloading their ability to process the information. While external scaffolds—outlines and anchor charts, for example—provide valuable support, it’s also beneficial to encourage students to develop their own portable strategies for managing novel information.

Metacognitive questions provide students with a template for interrogating new material, putting them on the path to becoming independent learners. Students can ask questions like these:

  • What stands out to me about this new material? What makes me wonder?
  • Which parts or terms are unfamiliar to me, and which parts do I recognize?
  • How does this connect with what I already know?
  • What follow-up questions do I have?
  • Why is this idea important?

You can pair these metacognitive questions with new assignments, suggests Kimberly Tanner, a professor of biology at San Francisco State University, in a 2017 study. “The instructor’s decision to make these kinds of questions part of an assignment—and part of the grading scheme for the assignment—can prompt students to bring a more metacognitive stance to their everyday coursework,” she writes.

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