There’s often a feeling of confusion and uncertainty that comes with starting an assignment. A lack of clarity around the best way to begin. Combine that with a decreasing supply of motivation, and you’re on your way to another student scrambling together a bunch of words the night before the due date. Without the right guidance, a student’s interest and engagement in a task can quickly turn into panic, as they struggle to understand how to proceed.
By designing better assessments, we have the opportunity to set students on a path towards successfully achieving their learning outcomes.
Scaffolding is a way to help students complete complex tasks, by guiding them through a series of simplified stages. This means breaking down assignments into achievable chunks with appropriate guidance along the way. This is especially important for students in their first year of university, or students from non-English speaking backgrounds. Easing students into assignments can help them find confidence in their own abilities, and remove the frustration and self-doubt that many students face.
Scaffolding is also valuable in keeping students engaged. Completing a series of smaller tasks leaves students with a sense of accomplishment and the momentum to keep producing quality work. Seeing a clear path to success can also stop students from being tempted to plagiarise or collude.
The best thing about scaffolding is that it’s easy to work into a variety of assessment types. Here are a few ways you can easily incorporate scaffolding into an assignment:
Ambiguity is the enemy of scaffolding, so breaking an assessment up into vaguely defined stages is only going to confuse students further. Be clear with what you want students to achieve at every step. Clarify the meaning of words like ‘analyse’ and ‘evaluate’ to help students understand what’s required of them.
Try using a checklist in your instructions to communicate the steps students need to take. Our templates even come with scaffolded checklists built in!
Sharing feedback in the middle of an assessment gives students the opportunity to improve when it matters most. One way to do this is by accepting drafts for feedback. In big classes where it isn’t possible to provide individual feedback, why not share cohort level feedback in class. Alternatively, you can try uploading high quality examples so students can self-evaluate and strive towards a gold standard.
Critical reading and analysis skills can be difficult to develop for students, so break it down for them. Instead of expecting them to decipher generic instructions like "critically analyse", provide them with questions to consider as they read. This will help them think critically about the text and also give them a better understanding of what to look for and analyse when completing future readings.
Don’t just provide students with subject knowledge; help them develop a range of language, writing and organisational skills as well. You can share helpful resources or direct students to university support services to ensure they have the necessary skills to complete an assessment.
One of the best ways for students to understand the work they need to do for an assessment is to discuss their progress with their peers. Allocate time in class for sharing assessment strategies and tips, or to discuss challenges students may be facing.
Even when you design perfectly scaffolded assessments, you can still lose sight of how your students are working and interacting with the assessment at each stage. That’s where Cadmus can help. Creating an assessment in Cadmus gives you access to analytics about how students are interacting with resources and whether they’re making notes — just to name a few. This enables you to take action during an assignment and guide students onto the right path.
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Originally presented at the 2020 EDUCAUSE conference — see how ECU combined policy and technology partnerships to improve student outcomes.
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