What’s so innovative about that? On Scaffolding Learning and Assessments

Greetings from ISA2015 in New Orleans!  I’ve now finished my two pedagogy and two research panels (phew) and am taking a wee break to blog about it all.  My pedagogy panels were excellent in terms of engagement and support from my fellow panelists.  Attendance was, well, lacking– perhaps a function of the 60+ panels that run simultaneously, but likely also a reflection of how teaching is (or is not) always valued in higher education.  For me, I think this is largely a function of the ‘publish or peril’ foundations of this profession.  Most (though not all!) academics do enjoy teaching and of course want to do a great job at everything they do, but ISA is a huge networking event for research and publications, and not all of us have the ‘luxury’ to dedicate too much time to our pedagogy.  For me this is one of the joys of being on the ‘teaching tenure track’–  it allows me the relative freedom to spend time reflecting on the practice and ethics of my teaching….The audience members we did have were fabulous– thank you for your engagement! Below is a quick reflection on a couple (non-techy) forms of innovation I tried to use last semester…..

Scaffolding:  It all pays off in the end (but it is a lot of work and lots more to consider!)

Since starting my new post last year, I have been introduced to the idea of ‘scaffolding’ as approach to teaching and assessment (for a good review of the literature on this see Boblet, 2012).   Whilst not claiming to have applied this approach holistically to my pedagogy,  I did try to integrate this to a great degree in this particular course.  Defined here as a ‘process that enables a  child or novice to solve a problem, carry out a task or achieve a goal which would be beyond his unassisted efforts’ (Wood, Buner and Ross, 1976: 90)  the lectures, activities and writing assignments that preceded this activity were essential to the success of the activity.

I am confident (though I would need to run a more controlled experiment) that had this been a stand-alone lecture, the activity would have been an absolute failure.  Instead what I found was first year students, who had not taken any other politics courses and for whom English is not their first language, completing tasks in a completely unexpected way.  At the end of the lecture my TAs and I stood and looked at each other in bit of  a ‘did that just happen?’ kind of way.    Not only were the students able to identify the different theoretical perspectives contained within  the tidbits of data they were provided, they were able to match these to specific aspects or ‘sub-concepts’ related with each of these theories.  For example under ‘Constructivism’ they then had to decide if the data fit ‘best’ with  Ideational vs Material Forces, The Social Construction of Knowledge and Truth, Changes to Norms and Values over Time.  What was really impressive though was their ability to justify to the class and teaching staff why they had placed their data there.  In several cases students placed data under categories that teaching staff were not initially convinced by, but after hearing student explanations, data was left where it was!

The scaffolding that had led to this success is summarized below.  Here it is worth noting that getting students to this stage was not easy.  The tasks described below were difficult intellectually, and emotionally in some cases, for the teaching staff (and perhaps for the students). We certainly did not end every lecture with feelings of success and pride. At many stages the teaching staff felt like this wasn’t working—we weren’t seeing the leaps in ability we had wanted,  but this perhaps masked some of the growth that was happening—as evidenced in this session.  Still, in future years it would useful to think about how there could be better ‘checks’ on learning at the earlier stages to prevent loss of morale and frustration for all involved.


  1. Reinforcement and repetition of material in different contexts: Some ideas (such as liberalism, feminism and post modernism) had been addressed in several lectures prior to week 11
  2. Ongoing support in structured argumentation: In previous weeks, students had been given more guided/supported ‘mini tasks’ which aimed to get them thinking about how to link data to particular concepts in a meaningful way.  This was done in an attempt to get them to internalize what ‘analysis’ and ‘justification of answers’ really looks like, so that it starts to become more automatic for them when faced with new ideas and data.  This set them up for doing this activity on their own with very little support from instructors.
  3. Modes of assessment, assisted performance, and differentiated learning. The written assignments for this module started with an article summary on a predetermined topic (to measure students’ basic comprehension and writing skills)  followed by a piece where they had to compare two new articles on the same topic (an attempt to get them to recognize that the same issue can be analyzed from different perspectives and to be able to communicate this to the reader).  The final assessment then asked them to use the three articles they read to a) come up with an ‘answerable’ question on the topic and b) formulate a structured academic argument to answer their question.  They were working on this final assignment at the time this lecture was given.  Whilst there were specific due dates for each of these, a small handful of students who were not able to successfully complete an assignment then went on an alternative deadlines schedule. This is not to say any students who failed were allowed to repeat—the standard was more along the lines of ‘did they even understand what they were supposed to have done’.  This was admittedly an imperfect measurement and something I need to rethink for future years.  These students  would work with the lecturer and TAs to complete one assignment properly before being allowed to progress to the next stage—integrating the differentiated learning approach  (see Ernst and Enrst, 2005).


Boblet, N (2012) ‘Scaffoldng:  Defining the Metaphor’ Columbia University Working Papers in TESOL & Applied Linguistics, 12(2), 1-16.

Ernst, H and Ernst T (2005)  ‘The Promise and Pitfalls for Differentiated Instruction for Undergraduate Political Science Courses:  Student and Instructor Impressions of and Unconventional Teaching Stragegy’ Journal of Political Science Education,  1: 39-59.

Wood, Bruner and Ross (1976) ‘The rold of tutoring in problem solving’ Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, , 17, 89-100.



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