How to Scaffold ELearning Content: Effective strategies and tactics to consider

scaffold eLearning contenteLearning attracts a diverse set of learners. Individuals from different educational backgrounds, age groups experience and prior knowledge of the subject matter might be partaking in an online course simultaneously. Each will learn at a different pace, understanding the content differently, and interpreting the message on their own terms. Because of this variation, L&D professionals might find it challenging to deliver their learning objectives using a one-size-fits-all approach. So, what’s the answer?


What is Scaffolding?

Not all learners absorb online content equally. The best way for L&D professionals to achieve their teaching objectives is to design and develop courses that meet the needs of a diverse set of participants. Scaffolding is an instructional approach, based on the work of psychologist Lev Vygotsky’s research in cognitive development, that helps online learners move progressively through the learning process.

At a very high-level, scaffolding strategies in eLearning work around an understanding of what:

  • the learner cannot do
  • the learner can do with assistance; and
  • what the learner can do unaided

The goal is to walk the learner from having no ability to do a task, to assisting him/her in performing the task independently. Trainers must gradually build upon learned skills, using various strategies and tactics, in order that all learners ultimately acquire the same levels of competencies.

We’ll discuss some of those approaches below.

Successful scaffolding strategies

Here are some elements of a successful scaffolding strategy:

  • Competency level tests: Prior to enrolment, administer competency tests so you’ll know what learners can (and more importantly cannot) do
  • De-construct knowledge: Based on varying degrees of competencies, break down complex theories into smaller concepts that each level of competency can understand and absorb
  • Chunking: Even with deconstructed content, make sure you “chunk up” individual parts of the sub-components. For example, a de-constructed theory with five hour-long videos could potentially still result in cognitive overload. A better approach would be to break-up the content into 10 or 15-minute interlinked bites
  • Personalized learning:Enable learners to create personalized learning paths so each learner creates individualized lesson plans that bring them closer to meeting his/her learning objectives
  • Building blocks: Knit learning into inter-connected lessons/modules that build upon previously learned knowledge. Components should link to other course content (e.g. Module 2 assignments could test knowledge from Module 1, and might introduce some concepts from Module 3) to form a progressively interlinked chain of knowledge
  • End-product inspiration: Before delivering assignments or projects, provide learners an example of what it is you are looking for them to produce. This helps learners connect the dots based on individual experiences
  • Self-assessments: Use self-assessment quizzes throughout your course so learners can evaluate where they stand with regards to their own progression through the course. Learners who surpass a pre-determined threshold can progress further in the course, while the course could route those that fail to meet the bar to undertake optional review and refresher modules

Tactics for implementing scaffolding strategies

So, what practical steps can L&D professionals include as part of a successful eLearning scaffolding strategy? Well, here are some tactics to consider:

  • Always start eLearning courses with a “Know your audience” exercise. Have each learner outline individual expectations and experiences that’ll help trainers customize their training approach to meet varying learner needs
  • Use the “Know your audience” inputs to design simulations and case studies around learner’s prior experiences. This ensures implementation of a central scaffolding tenant – that each learner uses previously acquired skills and knowledge to build a ladder to higher levels of comprehension
  • Create eLearning content that aligns with on-the-job expectations and broader business objectives. One of the objectives of scaffolding is to empower learners to perform “unaided”. Unless trainers align the assignments, exercises and case studies used, with what the job demands of learners, it’ll be hard for learners to build upon prior work experiences to demonstrate proficiency
  • Include quizzes, assessments, and comprehension tests designed with graduating levels of difficulty. This will push learners to demonstrate their competency of the subject matter and to confirm their readiness to proceed to the next level
  • Design eLearning lessons using the “before, during and after” approach to quickly identify obstacles to successful knowledge transfer. Do this by using frequent review and refresh content (per-module, mid-lesson, module completion) so learners continually revise what they most recently learned; and trainers can quickly identify the need for scaffolding interventions
  • Trainers must take time to connect with each learner one-on-one, throughout the course, so you may assess individual competencies and challenges, and offer tiered remedial responses
  • Scaffolding occurs through both instructor-to-learner and learner-to-learner interactions. Use hosted discussion forums and moderated chat sessions to facilitate the exchange of ideas amongst learners, and between instructor and learners. Use these platforms to identify the need for scaffolding interventions – such as observing if a learner appears “lost” or “disconnected” from others in the discussion group; or noticing if some learners struggle more than others to comprehend what’s discussed
  • Another useful scaffolding tactic is peer-learning. Use group assignments and team-based games to stimulate learning through social and team interactions. This allows more knowledgeable learners to coach those struggling with a theory or concept
  • Every learner learns and expresses his/her proficiency differently. Designing multi-format quizzes, tests and assignments (long-form answers, True/False questions, Multiple-choice quizzes, Essay reports, Work-scenario use cases) is a great way to ensure knowledge transference occurs even at different levels of comprehension
  • Include plenty of practice sessions throughout the course, including trainer-assisted/instructor-led events. This tactic underlines yet another principle of successful scaffolding – the concept of learning by watching others do, and by doing it themselves
  • Add plenty of optional content throughout the course, such as links to external websites, Wiki sites, YouTube videos, more practice questions, short recap videos, and podcasts. Learners, struggling with a specific concept or theory, may find these useful resources to rely upon to bridge comprehension/proficiency gaps that take them to the next level

Putting eLearning scaffolding to work

The goal of any eLearning scaffolding strategy is to reduce (or eliminate) a cognitive gap among groups of learners. L&D teams achieve this through various interventions, including creating situations that elicit a cognitive response, demonstrating imitable behavior, providing constructive feedback, facilitating social and peer-learning situations, and offering one-on-one behavioral modification through coaching.

eLearning developers should consider using the strategies and tactics outlined above to accomplish all those objectives.

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