Digital scaffolding for successful learning

How can digital technologies be effectively integrated in the classroom? Jacobs Research Fellow Sarah Hofer explains what research on scaffolding has found.

So far, the public debate on digitalization in general, and specifically in education, seems to be dominated by extreme positions. The use of digital media in the classroom in itself, however, has neither a negative nor a positive impact on students’ learning. It all depends on the way they are used. The question we should ask is not “Is digital technology in education harmful or beneficial?” but rather “How, when and for whom do digital technologies promote learning?”. If we focus not on the technology but instead on how individuals learn, we can draw on the findings of research on learning and instruction to examine how the use of digital resources can support the learning process.

In order to provide targeted support for the learning process, it is important to identify students’ current stage of development and provide adaptive assistance so that they can reach the next stage –and learn. This kind of adaptive assistance, often referred to as scaffolding, is intended to make the learning situation less demanding for the learner, freeing up cognitive resources for the actual learning process. It might take the form of additional explanations, modeling of solution strategies, or highlighting relations between different elements within the learning material. Scaffolding places large demands on the teacher. With digital technologies quickly evolving and becoming increasingly available, new opportunities are emerging for digital resources to take over various aspects of scaffolding, thereby easing the burden on teachers. Research in this area is still in its infancy.

Scaffolding for learning

Earlier work suggests that scaffolding especially benefits students with little prior knowledge, responding to and compensating for their specific needs. We conducted a study with secondary school students in Germany in order to compare evidence-based teaching methods with conventional mathematics instruction over several weeks. Learners in the lowest secondary school track – that is, the least demanding track – benefitted from evidence-based teaching methods only if they received additional digital scaffolds, such as explanations and animations that were specifically designed to meet their needs. In contrast, students in the highest secondary school track always benefited from evidence-based instruction, regardless of the presence of digital scaffolds.

What we know relatively little about, however, is which kinds of digital scaffolds are particularly helpful for which learners. This is precisely what we are planning to investigate in a large-scale study of students attending different types of schools. For example, it is possible that scaffolding in the form of automatic word-recognition or auto-completion algorithms could reduce the cognitive burden during writing for students who have little knowledge of the language of instruction, and thereby free up cognitive resources for content processing. Scaffolding in the form of dynamic cues within the learning material that indicate what to focus on and when, has the potential to help learners compensate for attention deficits and process the material at a deeper level.

Individualized digital scaffolds could especially support students with specific learning needs to acquire fundamental competencies. Hopefully our results can contribute to effectively integrating digital technologies in the everyday classroom – a crucial future challenge that researchers, the tech industry and education policy makers must face and address together.

Sarah Hofer is a Jacobs Research Fellow. She is currently an adjunct professor for research on learning and instruction at Ludwig-Maximilians-University (LMU) in Munich. In her research, Sarah investigates individual, instructional and institutional factors that contribute to learning and educational success.