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Creating "A Ha" Moments: Content Scaffolding and Adaptive Learning

Posted in Adaptive Learning on January 10, 2011 by

We do a lot of research as we refine our adaptive learning engine. Our most recent research concerned how two fancy-sounding educational concepts — content scaffolding and metacognitive scaffolding — can be used to help improve learning and increase engagement among students.

Here’s what these two types of scaffolding are all about:

Content scaffolding consists of reminding students of critical concepts, presenting a multi-step problem as a series of smaller problems, and otherwise breaking down a problem into its constituent components. It’s used to help students synthesize concepts when those concepts are still new to them.

Metacognitive scaffolding, on the other hand, asks students to reflect upon the process they use in approaching a problem. This process allows students to generalize and prompts them to think analogously. Metacognitive scaffolding helps students extend the application of their knowledge to new situations.

For this project, we worked with high-school students to apply the principles used in scaffolding to the reflection and reinforcement stage of the learning process. Knewton’s adaptive system is designed to provide different follow-up questions to different students, depending on their needs. How, we wondered, would using content scaffolding and/or metacognitive scaffolding within these follow-up questions affect student learning and engagement?

The high schoolers who participated attempted to answer a question and then read its explanation. Next, they were given follow-up questions designed either to reinforce concepts (a form of content scaffolding) or to stimulate metacognition.

The follow-up questions designed to reinforce concepts were very similar to a certain step of the original problem. For example, if the first problem asked students to reduce a fraction whose numerator and denominator were each quadratic expressions, the second might ask students to factor a quadratic equation.

On the other hand, the follow-up questions designed to stimulate metacognition required students to apply the original concept to a different but analogous situation. If the first problem was about converting rates involving physical dimensions, the second might be about converting rates with dollars and services.

The results? Students definitely found the first type of follow-up question more accessible—no surprise there, since the concepts the original questions tested were generally new to the student.

These concept follow-ups helped reinforce the steps the students learned to take while solving the original problem. As for the latter, metacognitive type of follow-up, it was more helpful to students who already had a good handle on the basic concepts and were ready to expand their application.

Content-reinforcing follow-ups were gratifying because students were really excited to be able to answer a question related to the harder question they’d just attempted. When prompted to explain how the follow-up related to the original question, the students enthusiastically explained how it was just like the first step of the original. Students jumped at the chance to demonstrate immediately the understanding they had gained from the explanation of the original problem.

Why is this important? Ultimately, it provides us with yet another way to engage students—something all educators are continuously striving for. And while we love to incorporate innovative features like gaming elements into our courses, it’s also nice to see that sometimes it’s the simple stuff that matters most.

Content scaffolding (and metacognitive scaffolding, when students are ready for it) facilitates those super-rewarding “a-ha!” moments that give students the motivation they need to stay engaged.