We all feel a certain level of anxiety when asked to do something that is out of our comfort zones. When expected to attempt a new skill, it’s important to remember that our students can feel that anxiety, as well.
Veteran teachers are well-aware of the importance of scaffolding tasks into manageable steps when introducing new concepts in the classroom. This strategy not only increases the accessibility of a new concept for students, but it also helps to reduce the stress associated with attempting new skills. The ways in which we implement that scaffolding can directly impact student success, so consider the following tips when designing instructional materials in order to help your students feel more at ease:
1. Provide a relevant organizational structure
At its core, a scaffolded working space should be structured to clearly define which information goes where. This seems like an obvious statement, but it is essential to alleviating stress for students, especially those who struggle with executive functioning. Providing rows, columns, boxes, or circles allows students to seamlessly - and neatly - capture their thoughts in contained areas. Each area should be precisely labeled and include procedural scaffolds (questions, sub-tasks, hints) that reinforce the expected cognitive tasks.
Whenever possible, extend the connections between ideas with relevant graphic designs. For example, if scaffolding a linear procedure, make strategic use of arrows, flowcharts, and numbered spaces to provide a logical path for students to follow. (If you’re looking to scaffold common interdisciplinary cognitive processes like cause and effect, hierarchy, etc., check out one of our favorite collections here.) These fundamental features empower students to focus their mental energy on the task at hand, practice effective organizational strategies, and surface metacognition in a graphically concrete way.
2. Format the text and space purposefully
Simple design features like font and spacing should be implemented purposefully in all resources, especially scaffolded ones. Use larger, bolded text for the heading of each section, and - stay with me on this one - provide lots of white space between tasks. White space serves as a physical separation from one step to the next, and mentally, it allows students to breathe. Presenting them with an overloaded page, packed with small text and boxes that are too cramped to capture their thoughts, could increase their anxiety. While we may be driven to fit content onto a single side of a page in order to keep our copy numbers down, those designs may not always be what is most effective for students. As with everything, decide what works best considering your resource constraints, but try to employ white space intentionally in at least the highly-scaffolded version of the task.
3. Design a template that is flexible
When building a scaffolded task for students, it’s important to plan for how those instructional supports will be removed when the time is right and the students are ready. In the simplest terms, if you create a graphic organizer with guiding questions or mnemonic devices under each section, it’s easy to create additional copies of that task where those supports are removed. Provide leveled versions of the original: one with the guiding questions removed, another with both the guiding questions and section labels removed, and another option with the guidance, labels, and/or organizational structures removed. See these examples of approaches to high-scaffolding, medium-scaffolding, and minimal scaffolding of the same task. (Pro-tip: print each version on a different color for easy identification, or be discreet by marking each version with a particular title or symbol at the top.)
By spending just a few extra minutes up front, you can conveniently differentiate instruction by providing students with (or empowering them to choose) the versions that best align to their readiness levels.
The scaffolding we design for students should help to make unfamiliar tasks approachable and accessible. Such support is necessary to practice complex mental processes and to make abstract concepts concrete, and implementing these effective scaffolding techniques can help to alleviate the stress and anxiety students feel when attempting new skills.
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