Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Scaffolding and Feedback

I'm learning more about the power of scaffolding and feedback for optimized student learning.  I've learned about it from the learning sciences perspective by studying research papers on the subject, but I've recently gained some new practical and tangible insights as I tutor one of my sons.

Effective tutoring uses both scaffolding and feedback to help students bridge gaps in understanding and develop new skills.  The techniques are conceptually similar but different in that scaffolding is more proactive and feedback is more reactive.  An example of scaffolding is when a tutor is helping a student learn how to solve a multi-step mathematics problem and prompts the student, "What do you do first?"

Scaffolding provides a safe structure within which the learner continues to build on and reinforce existing knowledge and skills.  It provides guidance and motivation in the process of learning while keeping the learner at the center of the learning experience.  It does not let the learner off-the-hook by providing answers.  If the student says, "I don't know."   The tutor might rephrase the question as a multiple choice or ask a more leading question such as "What kind of problem is this?" or "What is the problem asking you to figure out?"  Scaffolding is not the same as instruction. A good tutor resists the urge to say, "The first thing you need to do is…"   Only when it is clear that the learner has a knowledge gap does the tutor step in…and that brings us to the role of feedback.

Formative feedback in tutoring is the tutor's response to a knowledge gap, misunderstanding, or area for improvement aimed at correcting/improving the cognitive imperfection.  Feedback is reactive in that it's driven by formative assessment or observation data.  Formative feedback is descriptive and specific, shedding light on the nature of the misunderstanding or procedural error and guiding the learner to correct it.  Feedback can be instructive like, "No, you skipped a step; the first thing you need to do is…,"  or it can be scaffolding-like, helping the learner self-correct, such as, "Check your signs."

Research shows that scaffolding and feedback are most effective when addressed at at-least "step-based" granularity.  For example, on a multi-step mathematics problem, effective feedback goes beyond telling the learner whether or not the answer to a problem is right or wrong.  Expert mathematicians know how to solve for x, because they have mastered the process-skills, but also because they have deep understanding of the concepts that make the process work.  On competencies that don't involve process steps the scaffolding might involve questions that prompt metacognition (i.e. when the learner thinks about what they are thinking) and explore new connections leading toward deeper understanding.  For example, building connections between historical events.

Scaffolding and feedback are some of the most powerful catalysts for learning.  I know this from the research and from practical experience.  Learning takes place much more effectively and efficiently under good tutoring conditions that include scaffolding, feedback, high expectations, and competency-based advancement.

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