Friday, January 15, 2016

Guest Post: Solidifying a Foundation of Learning Through Scaffolding

iLOVE welcomes a guest post from Dan Chibnall, User Services and Instruction Design Librarian at Grand View University in Des Moines, IA.


Instruction librarians have the difficult task of not only needing to understand lots of different ideas and topics but also the information literacy skills surroundings those topics. But how do we know if we truly understand something well enough? The key is how we communicate it and how much the students understand it when we’re finished. One approach that I take with quite a few of my embedded librarian courses is scaffolding assignments and activities to help promote understanding of a new skill.

Scaffolding is an instruction technique that gradually moves students towards an understanding of a concept or skill set. Also, scaffolding aids students in becoming more independent learners by having them work on a skill over a longer period of time, make mistakes, learn from those mistakes, get frequent feedback, and eventually seeing how to use it in multiple courses or situations.

Information literacy skills and scaffolding go hand-in-hand. The skills we’re all familiar with are the types of skills that require frequent trial-and-error sessions in order to learn them (having a purpose, retrieving sources, analyzing a source, etc.) One of those skills is evaluating sources, which college students need to do often. Scaffolding allows a step-by-step approach.

For example, while working with a literature course the faculty member and I decide to try a scaffolded approach to web evaluation. Students frequently attempt to use websites right away in their research, so we wanted to make sure they knew how to evaluate them properly. The first step was to teach the students some basic criteria they could use to evaluate websites pertaining to a specific topic of Realist authors. Students were then asked to create a rubric using the basic criteria and use that rubric with the websites they found. The faculty member and I then assessed their choices and their rubrics. 

During the next session we talked to the students about what worked and what didn’t, gave them tips for improving their rubrics, and gave them more advanced criteria to evaluate websites. They then worked with partners and in groups to go back to the drawing board and try again. The results the next time around were much more promising. From that point on the faculty member and I could look at their websites in their annotated bibliographies and give more feedback to the students. Each time they were asked to find a web source, they got better at it.

I take another approach with large, end-of-semester projects. In a seminar class that I teach, students are asked to investigate a local nonprofit organization. The assignment asks them to pull together research, interviews with employees, observation information from their visit to the location, etc. In years past I have noticed that students will often wait until the final weeks of the semester to work on big projects, so I scaffold the nonprofit assignment to allow them to work on it throughout the semester.

The nonprofit assignment is broken down into components called Status Updates that ask the students to work on different skills from week 3-week 12. For example, in the first Status Update the students are asked to explain what their nonprofit is, find some basic outside information about them, and find some opinion pieces written about them. This is the first step in retrieving info and evaluating it. Every Status Update builds on this, asking them to find and evaluate more difficult sources, higher amounts of information, and integrating it incrementally into their writing. By the end of week 12 or week 13 they have almost nine-tenths of their final assignment complete.

There are a variety of ways to scaffold an assignment or activity, but the key to it is patience and starting with the end in mind. Determine what it is you want the students to learn or know by the end of it all, then work backwards. Make the project big enough so you can break it into pieces. The most important part, though, is giving lots of feedback to the students about how they’re doing. They won’t learn much from it without feedback at each step of the way.

So good luck if you want to try it! Contact me if you have questions or you can read the article that my colleague and I wrote about our collaboration.

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