In an instructional setting, the term “scaffolding” or “instructional scaffolding” refers to the guidance and support a teacher offers a student when the student is learning a new concept. In the classroom, scaffolding functions very much like the physical scaffolds you may see alongside a building.
As a new building is being erected, scaffolding helps provide external support. Once construction is complete, the scaffolding is taken down and the building can stand on its own. In a similar way, a teacher might initially provide extensive support to a student, but then gradually remove that support until the student is able to apply the concept independently.
This technique is ubiquitous in classroom teaching. It can also be incorporated within the assessment process as a means of identifying instructional needs. How might this work, exactly? One way to do it is to ask students a question and provide instructional scaffolding if they struggle. For example, an initial spelling question might require students to spell a word. If students are unable to complete the task independently, the question can be reframed with scaffolding by giving them a choice of four spellings and asking them to identify the correct one. This technique can be applied as part of authentic classroom assessment, in a 1:1 setting, or as part of a computer-based assessment (like the Children’s Progress Academic Assessment).
But why might we want to incorporate scaffolding in our assessment process? In the early childhood assessment setting, there are many benefits. Young children naturally seek scaffolding in their day-to-day experiences, and their behavior in a learning context naturally elicits support from teachers. Young students start out as testing novices and may benefit from an assessment procedure that mimics the more familiar instructional setting. In addition, scaffolding within an assessment experience ensures direct benefit for the child.
In his book, Beyond Technology: Questioning, Research and the Information Literate School Community, Jamie McKenzie explores key characteristics of scaffolding in the context of student learning experiences. Several characteristics he highlights are highly relevant in the assessment context as well. Here are four key benefits to incorporating instructional scaffolding within the assessment process, inspired by Jamie’s analysis:
1. Keeps test takers focused. Being inherently responsive to each child’s needs, scaffolding enables students to maintain engagement and motivation to complete assessment tasks.
2. Generates formative data that is useful to educators. When students encounter instructional scaffolding as they are assessed, their responses are aligned to their zone of proximal development. Educators can use this data to inform teaching in the zone.
3. Reduces anxiety and uncertainty. An assessment that offers scaffolding in response to incorrect answers maximizes learning and eliminates the potential anxiety caused by a too-difficult task. Moreover, scaffolding serves as feedback about correctness, preventing misconceptions from taking hold and resolving uncertainty that may otherwise pervade the assessment experience.
4. Creates momentum. With embedded scaffolding, wrong answers are met with just-in-time assistance, leading to a powerful teaching opportunity that benefits each child where they need it most.
Have you used scaffolding in the classroom or in the course of your assessment process? We’d love to hear from you, so please share your experience in the comments below.