How (much) do you support your students?
The Educationalist. By Alexandra Mihai
Welcome to the last 2022 issue of “The Educationalist”! This week I want to tackle a topic that is on my mind quite a lot and that I end up talking about frequently- the level and the nature of support we provide our students. What is a good balance between scaffolding and independent learning? What are sustainable ways to support students that go beyond what is often seen as “hand-holding”? As usual, I don’t have a recipe but I hope that by structuring my thoughts and sharing them here with you we can at least start to think about works best in our context. Thanks a lot for reading, looking forward to your comments. Have a nice week and relaxing winter holidays! See you in 2023!
I came by the verb “to scaffold” in an educational context about a decade ago, when I was taking my first steps in educational science. The term puzzled me a bit, as it brought about the image of a construction site. I even dag up in my blog archive and found my reflections from the time. Years later, I understood that this is exactly what we (should) do as educators- scaffold students’ learning, devise mechanisms to support them along the way. But when the building is over, the scaffold comes off. So how do we know when it’s “safe” to let students manage on their own and how do we gradually remove the scaffold as they strengthen their own “learning muscles”?
These are not easy questions. It’s also quite a controversial issue, with educators’ opinions being split on the topic. Some emphasise the more human aspect of education, building a relation of trust with our students, while others think that too much hand-holding can undermine the students’ ability to develop as independent learners. Sometimes I have this debate with myself too, whenever I feel I’m dangerously tilting towards one of the extremes.
But here’s the good news: it does not have to be a dichotomy. Supporting our students does not have to mean that we inhibit their growth as self-regulated learners (on the contrary, I argue that they even need support to become self-regulated learners in the first place, but more about that later). And promoting and practicing active learning, where students need to work independently and in groups, does not have to mean we take our hands off them completely (this can even backfire, in fact).
Instead, I see it more of a support spectrum. Intentional, dialogue-based, tailored to students’ needs, adaptable to changing circumstances. Because it’s not that straightforward, it takes more work from us, but it also pays off. More than anything, it takes real presence. Being present with and for our students, listening, observing, meeting them where they are and adjusting the levels and kind of support accordingly. It’s a continuous negotiation.
Designing for support
Support can take many forms, some of them more obvious, and visible, than others. There are things we can do already at the design stage, when we are at the drawing board, that can influence the dynamic in the classroom and ultimately the way we support our students. Here are three things that come to mind:
The importance of structure. Thinking through the structure of our course, making sure the various parts are well balanced and well-sequenced, all this constitutes support, even though we don’t often think of it that way. A course that is thoughtfully designed is more likely to see more student engagement and less need for hand-holding along the way, as the backbone is already there to support students in their learning, maintain their curiosity and motivation.
Keeping it real. Being realistic in our expectations, already when designing the course, is one of the best tools we have to support students. This involves trying to estimate time and workload, testing our assignments (how often do we do that, I wonder?), being intentional about the amount and choice of resources we provide students, as well as the number and timing of assignments. This is an ongoing exercise, by the way, don’t expect to get it perfect the first time.
Clear and explicit communication. Usually, communication is one of the last things we think of when designing the course. And then we wonder why we are overwhelmed with questions. Managing students’ expectations is another very effective way to support them. And this requires being explicit about the learning goals, about learning activity instructions, about grading and feedback, and so on. Ideally, we set up the framework for an ongoing dialogue that enables us to figure out the level of support needed at any point in time.
“Sustainable” forms of support
Because one of our goals is to gradually enable students to take ownership of their own learning, both for their benefit and also, a bit selfishly, so that we can decrease our workload a bit, it’s important to think of some other, more subtle, forms of support. For instance:
Support with study strategies and study skills. Explicitly talking to students about how they learn (best), about what helps them and what hinders them, helping them train their study skills, individually and in groups- all this can represent tremendous support for students. Making time in our classes for them to practice and talk about how it all works is a great first step.
Encouraging reflection on their learning. It is a misconception that we always have to keep students busy, with activity after activity and assignment after assignment. Having dedicated time to reflect on how one learns is extremely important. This can be done in various ways, in the classroom and outside the classroom, individually (for instance in a learning diary) and collectively.
Facilitating peer learning. Support doesn’t always have to come from us. On the contrary, together with self-support, as seen in the previous two points, peer support can ideally represent a very effective mechanism for student learning. But in order for it to achieve its full potential, students need to train their skills in providing and receiving feedback, something we can help them with.
When we talk about student support, most of us have stories in which the line between support with learning and support on other, more personal issues, is very fine. We often wonder where the boundaries of our role as educators are, even as we do our best to show our students we care and we see them as whole human beings. Luckily, on most campuses there are various offices that specialise on supporting students with different issues, and it’s important for us to be aware of what they do so that we can refer students to them in order to get the best possible support in their circumstances.
One other thing I want to mention here is that creating an inclusive and welcoming learning space for all our students is also a great way of support. And this inevitably starts with knowing who are students are, making an intentional effort to get to know them so we can best address their needs. Moreover, we should clearly communicate our role and our boundaries, in order to avoid misunderstandings, disappointment and (emotional) overload.
Scaffolding vs fading
Because support is not the goal, but the means to a goal (like the scaffold is not the facade itself, it’s just there to help build the facade), knowing when to fade the support is key. And not surprisingly, it’s also not an easy thing to do. How do we know when students are ready and can fully rely on the learning skills they acquired? While we can already build a “fading” mechanism in our design, what we really need to do is be very present in class and tune into the students’ performance and motivation levels. This is usually a gradual process, and it also makes sense to talk with students about it openly.
Ultimately, I feel this is more of an art than an exact science- finding the right way to make sure students feel supported without inhibiting their development as independent learners.
Pedagogies of care- a rich collection of open resources on how to create an inclusive learning community, from design through teaching and collaboration to assessment;
Let’s get to work with productive learning strategies: all-in-one, by Tine Hoof, Tim Surma, Paul A. Kirschner & Mirjam Neelen- an overview of eight productive learning strategies that you can work on with your students;
What’s your story? Using storyboarding to design engaging online learning- some ideas on how to visualise the structure of your course at the design stage;
Structure Matters: Twenty-One Teaching Strategies to Promote Student Engagement and Cultivate Classroom Equity, by Kimberly D. Tanner;
Let’s talk about time- an overview of tools and ideas on how to estimate time and workload in teaching.