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Scaffolding … what is it and how does it work

Hello All,

I am currently teaching a class in child development to undergraduates. As you may be able to tell from the posts, I approach teaching applied statistics (including research method and psychometrics) from a cognitive developmental approach. So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I also get to teach developmental classes from time to time. Yet, what has surprised me is that I cannot find any good references on how a professor or teacher implements one of the most critical pedagogical practices I know of … scaffolding.

So, I thought I would write information about scaffolding as a technique to help students develop, and share it with you.

Scaffolding Defined:

Scaffolding is a technique that an expert (e.g., parent, teacher or professor) implements to help a learner develop a certain set of knowledge or skill. In general, it relies upon the expert constraining a learning environment in a manner so that the learner can master component pieces of the activity. Without the aid of the expert constraining the environment, the learning is unlikely to develop by him or herself.

Scaffolding Example with Young Children:

Think about putting together a puzzle. You would never give a 3 or 4 year old a 1000 piece puzzle to solve.

Image result for images of puzzles

It would simply overwhelm the child. Instead, we give young children

Image result for images of puzzles.

puzzle pieces that fit into a board. The puzzle pieces are larger. Some times they even have handles on them to help with the limited fine motor skills of young children. The images on the puzzle pieces help distinguish what goes where in the puzzle. Each of these constraints are a type of scaffolding. And if a child is very new to putting together puzzles, the expert probably turns all of the pieces facing up in the direction that they will go into the puzzle itself. So, the child doesn’t have to turn over puzzle pieces or rotate them. Such examples that parents world wide exhibit are examples of scaffolding the situation so the child can experience success and develop. And over time, we go from having the puzzle pieces right side up and having the board around the edge to hold the puzzle pieces and having larger pieces, to that 1000 piece puzzle set. But it takes time, and the learner is who sets the pace of what scaffolding is put into place  and when it can be removed.

Zone of Proximal Development: 

Many people think that Vygotsky, a developmental researcher from the 20th century, came up with the concept of scaffolding. He didn’t. However, he did propose the zone of proximal development, which is critical for the process of scaffolding. The zone of proximal development is at a point in a learner’s development where the learner is not able to complete a particular task or generate a set of knowledge on his or her own. However, with the help of an expert, the learner begins to develop to the point of being able to complete a task or generate knowledge. Development while the child is in the zone of proximal development is not possible without the active involvement of the expert … someone like a professor in statistics.

Scaffolding and the Zone of Proximal Development:

So, a professor interested in helping a student develop needs to recognize when the student is in the zone of proximal development … that is the student is ready to learn, but still needs aid in learning. This can come in many forms, including modeling of how to do something like calculating a standard deviation, making use of Socratic questioning to guide the student to a deeper understanding, or applying the pedagogical principle of scaffolding to capitalize on the learner being in the zone of proximal development. Thus, there are many ways to reach a student who is in the zone of proximal development, scaffoding is just one of those techniques.

Statistical example of Scaffolding:

I had a student once come to my office in a state of panic. He had an applied statistics class with another professor at a different college. The professor was teaching about standard deviation. Students were supposed to calculate and interpret a standard deviations from a set of data. The student read and reread the textbook, attended class, and even asked the professor for help. Yet, the student was still clueless as to how to begin to find a standard deviation. The student was certain he was destine to fail statistics. He couldn’t look at the formula and figure out where to begin. This is not scaffolding at all.

A professor who scaffolds tasks associated with the standard deviation begins by teaching about the deviation, that is the difference between each individual observation and the mean. By constraining the conceptual and mathematical components of a standard deviation to X – mean, students really begin to get a sense of what the standard deviation is telling us, and how we are getting that information. And let’s face it, even our weakest students know how to subtract one number from another.

After the student masters the deviation, we continue working through to help students figure out how to find a sum of squares. Finding the sum of squares ∑(X-M)^2 constrains the calculations for finding the standard deviation. Moreover, it further helps them understand why the standard deviation is the square root of the variance … and where all of this is coming from.

I have students calculate about 40 sum of squares before they calculate one standard deviation. By breaking the standard deviation into pieces … deviations, then squared deviation, then the sum of the squared deviation, then the variance … to the standard deviation. I am capitalizing on the zone of proximal development, constraining the situation, providing them with smaller tasks upon which they can be successful.

It sure beats throwing a formula up on the board and expecting students to break it down for themselves. Sure, about 5 percent of my students can do that … but I have to teach 100% of my students. Scaffolding enables me to reach those in the zone of proximal development.

(Note: you can find more details regarding how to scaffold in the teaching of standard deviations, with examples of hands on activities in Green and Stowell (2017) found in Stowell and Addision’s (eds.) Activities for Teaching Statistics and Research Methods: A Guide for Psychology Instructors.

Additional Scaffolding Resources for teachers of applied statistics:

I am happy to say, I am currently working with two other colleagues, Dr. Kristin Noblet, and Dr. John Protzko to update the Assignments and Exercises for Students (Green & Sandry, 2010) available through Pearson,

The first edition really provides a great way to help students master statistical concepts by using several types of scaffolding techniques. All professors can access this resource for free.

I promise when we get the second edition in print, I will provide everyone with information on how to access it at that time.

When I am teaching college students who are preparing to be teachers, I tell them … if you can only learn one pedagogical tool, make it scaffolding, as nothing does a better job at moving a student from being unable to learn and master material to success.

I welcome comments and examples from others who have successful used scaffolding to teach applied statistics.

Until the next time … happy thinking!



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The first few minutes matter: Intellectually engaging students

As educators in statistics, what do we hope for the most?

I would say we are most interested in our students learning and understanding how to use and interpret statistics.

Yet, what percentage of your students are actually interested in learning about statistics on the first day of class?

I have taught close to 100 doctoral students and close to 2000 undergraduate students. I have had no more than 3 doctoral students interested in learning statistics and certainly not more than 20 undergraduates. Thus, between 1 and 3 percent of the students who enter my classes desire to learn about statistics. In talking with my colleagues, this is not uncommon. That means a lot of students are not interested in learning statistics.

Yet, how do we get students to learn … we must get them intellectually engaged.

Several of my previous posts have focused on getting students intellectually engaged, you can find a listing of those posts here:

Yet, few things are more important than the first few minutes of class. This is the time that you set the stage for the learning that will take place during the rest of the class.

James Lang, a professor and writer for the Chronicle of Higher Education has provided an overview with how to get students intellectually engaged within the first 5 minutes of class.

This source provides similar information on how to begin a class in a manner that engages students.

Both sets of recommendations are all great ones.

I want to add one more … the power of the story.

There is something about a narrative, that is a story about a person, that captivates students. Beginning class with a story about a real person can be very engaging for students. Truth be told, in statistics just about any narrative can be turned into a statistical example.

As an example: if you want to demonstrate the differences between an independent variable and a subject variable, a story about a person with Autism or Depression can help, versus the difference between the anger level of a person in a cool or hot environment.

If you were preparing to teach about correlation coefficient, you can tell a story about person growing up in a war torn area. Then discussion constructs that such a person has to endure … lack of food and medical care, fear for one’s life, witnessing death and destruction, stress. How does growing up in such an environment impact a person’s life expectancy? The narrative and the questions the narrative spawn can yield great in class examples as you explain how a correlation works, what can be interpreted from the results, and what can’t be.

Stories are a great way to grab a students’ attention in a non-threatening way. You can bring your students into the class in a matter of two or three minutes with a good story. And in statistics … you can slide them right into the concepts in a non-threatening manner.

Where can you get stories for class?

No matter what you do to get your students intellectually engaged, those first few minutes are important to help assure students get the most out of class. Which technique should you use? I would recommend the one you have the most fun with on a given day!

(For more information please see: Narrative Pedagogy: Life History and Learning, by Goodson and Gill, 2011).




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A time for reflection

Being a professor provides us with an opportunity to have a hard end, every semester. With a built in break, to rejuvenate, lick our wounds, work on our scholarship, and to reflect on the prior academic year.

I remain concerned over the quality of course evaluations. Many universities do exactly what my institution did. An assistant provost created a committee of faculty members and administrators, none of whom had a background in the creation of psychometric tools. She provided them with some constraints … 10 items or fewer, it had to include an item on starting and stopping class on time, and it had to be free to administer.

A good measure, regardless of its purpose begins just with that … what is the purpose of this measure?

Yet, course evaluations are supposed to have multiple purposes.

  • Provide administrators with information they can use to make retention/tenure/promotion decisions, often so that they have support for denying retention, tenure, or promotion. (Note: I spent a stint in administration … not all schools are like this, but enough are).
  • Evaluate the quality of the professor.
  • Provide feedback to the professor so he/she can make data driven improvements.

You can’t really impact how the measure you are assigned to use has been crafted, what’s it’s purpose, or what kind of information it will be provided to you. However, even if you are at an institution where there is no truly useful measure, the act of seeking anonymous feedback from your students can be useful in helping you to be more reflective on your teaching, and to make improvements for the future. (e.g.,

Here are some tips to do just that:

  1. Before you even look at the results, look at what your goals for the semester were. Did you hope to improve student homework completion? Attendance? Make a list of that information, and see how your efforts translated to student responses.
  2. If your school’s course evaluation is not providing you with useful information, ask the students open ended questions that will provide you with useful information. Just make sure to administer it after the grades have been posted, and provide students with a way to provide that information anonymously. Survey Monkey is an easy way. If you are working with a course delivery system like D2L, there are survey options that you can make anonymous. But in the end, ask the questions you want/need the answer to.
  3. Look over the students responses on both the course evaluations and the survey you created. Read them … and then think about what they said. Then read it again. If you get back feedback that makes you sad or mad … put the course evaluations down for a couple of days, then come back to them.
  4. As you look through the responses … often after a couple of days of waiting to re-read them, evaluate those responses in the context of your course goals. Remember, this isn’t going to be like a t-test … a binary decision: reject the null/fail to reject the null. People just simply aren’t good teachers and sucky teachers. Instead, look for signs of when you were a good teacher. When were you not a good teacher
  5. Growing up, there was a prayer in my kitchen … you may know it …

Grant me…

The serenity to accept the things I cannot change.

The power to change the things that need changing

The Wisdom to know the difference.

I believe that as you focus on the students responses … keep that in mind. Some variables are out of your control, but others are within your control. Your job when you read over your course evaluations and reflect on your teaching is to have the wisdom to know the difference… and create some targeted goals to better reach the students you are serving.

I hope your summer is one of great reflection, rejuvenation, that you don’t have that many wounds to lick, but you do find some time to have fun with family and friends.

Happy thinking!




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Let’s dance

Let’s Dance …

Some of my fondest memories are surrounding dancing. I learned how to Polka with my Grandfather. I have many memories of dancing with my Dad, including learning how to Waltz.  My son, as an infant, would only calm down with “dancing.” Many days we would dance for two or more hours. And now, I look forward, every year to the one polka dance my daughter promises me at a community event.

Thus, with all of these fond memories of dancing, it’s probably not surprising that dancing has become a metaphor for me as to what great teachers do.

In dancing, there is a give and take between two people. There is a form of non-verbal communication, especially with the Polka (For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Polka, this clip can give you a sense ).

In teaching, there, too, is a form of non-verbal communication that takes place … with the give and take between two people (or the teacher and the entire class). Though the teacher is “the lead” if she doesn’t receive information from her dance partner, the dance will not turn out well, and I would predict the dance partner will leave.  There has to be that give and take, that continuous communication, and continuous adjustment for learning to occur at the highest levels. I believe the dance is gone in electronic based education.

Now, anyone who has been reading this blog for any period of time knows I am a fan of I encourage you to make use of this great website for your students (and your own children). A great interview with Sal Khan and Khan Academy can be found at

What we can all learn about teaching from the strength of Khan Academy is how each of the topics are broken down into the component pieces. This should be true in the classroom environment, too.  Students, then, have to truly master those components through what some may call “Drill and Kill” but I like to think of as “training one’s brain.”  Students have to get a certain number of problems correct in a row, with Khan Academy before they receive an “award” for completing the task. Even one small error could result in having the student to start over from the beginning. I’ve been a fan of drill and practice, as an important component of learning for years , and the research is clear … drill and practice of component parts are necessary though not sufficient to assure mastery of information like statistics. Though I find such skill development, as put forth in Khan Academy, to be necessary for learning, it is only the beginning, not the end of learning.

Classroom learning can help shift with students’ … take their waning attention on the Friday before Spring Break. Yes, even on the Friday before Spring Break, classroom seats should be filled, as important learning is taking place. Yet, the students’ minds are often less focused. The teacher in the front of the classroom can focus their thoughts through examples … if one doesn’t work (as you can tell by the look in their eyes — or lack their of), then you switch until you hit on the right combination … it is, indeed, a dance. Teachers can help identify what component pieces of information may be missing and help guide the class toward mastering that component piece. The teacher can aid in integrating the knowledge through questioning … an old and well tested pedagogical technique called Socratic Method, which enables students to thinker deeper and over time, faster that assures students to find weaknesses within their thinking  (Though there are a lot of descriptions of the Socratic method, here is one: ). Of course, individuals can say … this can be replicated on line, I suppose if the entire class is being conducted synchronously, but, you still lose information … information you get from non-verbal cues, information that could help in the dance.

Now, I have been looking for research in this area, and haven’t found any. There is plenty of research attempting to show that students can perform as well without a teaching in the front of the class, but that is with a typical 50% drop rate!

Could you imagine a university keeping a new professor if 50% of all students who took his class dropped it?  Yet, no one is talking about this fairly robust trend … a 50% drop rate, which I even see in my on-line classes.

Yet, if you listen to Sal Khan, it seems like he is saying … education can completely change, and all you need is a computer. If you read about the Falling of Universities, it seems like people think it is possible to learn as much from a computer as from a human, but computers can’t dance … and until they can (which I suspect will result in them first having passed the Turing Test), computers can become a tool in the path toward education, but it will be a tool a skilled teacher will need to wield, not merely hand over to students.

If anyone sees research on how to teach the “dance” to new faculty or how to assess the “dance,” please let me know … for those of you looking for an interesting research area in education/teaching/pedagogy … I really think over the course of the next ten years, this  will be a hot topic, as we better understand what children and adults can and cannot learn from a machine.

Happy Dancing!

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Decreasing Cheating

Several years ago, I arranged for an Eastern Psychological Symposium on the application of psychological research in maximizing students’ intellectual engagement in (and out of) class. I was reminded of this symposium while reading the Chronicle of Higher Education. A faculty member was highlighting the challenges he faced prior academic year when he started to use a anti-plagiarism software, Turnit-In

His experiences were certainly interesting, and as I thought of cheating in my non-statistics classes, I started to wonder … why don’t I catch students cheating in statistics. It is the class that occupies 50% of my professional schedule. I don’t catch cheaters, as I minimize any benefit students may have in cheating.

(1) I do not collect or correct homework. I provide students with worksheets (Green & Sandy, 2010) Students are instructed to complete before completing the more complicated problems within the body of the textbook. In both cases, the Assignments and Exercises for Students and the textbook examples, answers are provided to the students. In fact, for many of the Assignments and Exercises for Students  problems, interim solutions are provided for students, so they can check to what point they had the answer correct. Students must take responsibility for their own learning, and most do. Those who don’t cannot be rewarded with cheating, and instead, fail to master the material and thus fail the class.

(2) During exams, I provide students with the formulas. Let’s face it … we double check formulas that we don’t use regularly. If students were to cheat, bringing along a copy of the formula seems like the most obvious place to start. Not much else could help them. The problems are too long and would take too much writing space to be helpful to risk being caught cheating.

However, there are some other behaviors that a professor can participate in that will decrease cheating.

(3) Stating a plagiarism policy in your syllabus is associated with less cheating.

(4) As is explaining to students, on a personal level, how you feel when students cheat.

(5) Here is an additional article on decreasing cheating: In short, James Lang reviews a research study that found one of the ways a faculty can go about decreasing cheating, is by not by focusing on cheating behaviors, but by focusing on learning behaviors. Moreover, it seems that students who were in classes with fewer tests, quizzes and other assessment tools demonstrated greater cheating behavior. Offering students nonthreatening ways for them and you to evaluate their cognitive development (like in the homework problems listed above), students are less incline to cheat. They simply have less reason to do so. Yet, they are spending time learning and mastering the material.

In the end … this is a challenge I think we will forever be battling, but don’t give up!

I’m most certainly looking for current research on this topic, so please let me know if you are involved with this kind of research.

May your students be intellectually engaged, and may cheating in your classes be non-existent!

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Intellectually taking hold of your students: The First Five Minutes

“I’ve lost them.”

I hate the realization that I have lost my class. I don’t care if I’m teaching 15 or 150 students, I want to grab a hold of their minds and fill them with critical information. This is particularly true in applied statistics.

We all know, many of our students don’t want to take applied stats. Let’s face it, some of our colleagues don’t even see it as being useful. And, there are even some people teaching applied statistics who don’t  want to! [I have tips for those who don’t want to teach stats here:]

But this world has some real problems facing it, and I suspect those of us teaching applied statistics understand how through the application of statistics … if done well … those problems can be solved. And as students grow to understand how statistics works, when to use it, what it can tell us and what it can’t, they begin to appreciate why applied statistics matters, too.

However, they aren’t going to naturally come to class with that understanding. Instead, they come to class worrying about everything from how they are going to pay their bills next month to are their eyebrows looking good! Most of our students are connected 24/7 to their phones that perpetually eat up their working memory capacity, and now we have to get them to focus on the class.

James Lang [] explains why the first five minutes of class matters so much. Lang also provides four examples of how to change up those first five minutes to encourage intellectual engagement. I encourage you to read his well written article. Building on his thoughts, I’m going to add a few of my own.

Students often want to take control of the first few minutes – Don’t let them:

I have been beginning my classes, including the first one of the semester, the way Lang describes since I’ve been teaching college. However, I always have …in every class … two or three students who want to interrupt the flow of the start of the class by asking about homework, or wanting back their exams, or any number of logistical issues that can and should wait. I would say about once every two years or so, the student is so insistent, class after class, I have to talk with them about what I am doing and why. Yes, questions are important, and students should feel welcomed to ask them … but as you are attempting to help students transition from the world into the classroom, you need to be the one to do that, and students questions or comments will disrupt that process.

Either deliver Logistical Issues before class starts or wait until the end of class: 

In my classes with student helpers,  I have the student helper put up a looping powerpoint for about 8 minutes before class begins. On it, there are reminders about upcoming assignments, quizzes, and office hours. For classes like applied statistics, when I finish one segment of the class and before transitioning to the next, that’s when I review the logistical issues of the class, never at the valuable beginning. As for attendance… I actually don’t take attendance on the first day of class, it eats up too much time. I take it before class starts. If I’m running late, I don’t take attendance that day.

Start with the working memory:

Remember, working memory is the amount of information a person can hold onto at any given moment and time. As professors we should do everything we can to maximize students’ working memory. That means, getting them to think about the class and nothing else. This is where Lang’s “Start with a Question” comes in handy.

You remember that looping powerpoint that my student helper puts up prior to the start of class? Interspersed between the logistical comments, I also include questions about information we have covered in the past to get the students thinking.

In applied statistics this makes so much sense … because aren’t we all about answering questions using statistics??? As a result, I make students come to the second class with a question they want to answer. In Quantitative Psychology, it has to be about Psychology … like, what causes happiness. In Quantitative Business Analysis it’s about a Business question, why are people willing to pay more money to shop at Wegmans where there is a much cheaper Walmart across the street. (etc.)

Some times I ask the question … some times I ask for a question. Often I’ll use that question as the basis for discussion during class as well.

However, we don’t just have to ask questions.  We can get students thinking and maximizing their working memory by also telling a story.  I start with saying … “On my drive into school…” Or yesterday I was reading … ” and the students pay attention. Whenever possible, I try to make it about something funny or shocking and always about statistics.

Another story approach is “The Statistical (or Psychometric) Schmuck of the Week.”  …

For this, I find a story or research about someone who has misused statistics (or psychometrics) in a way that it’s embarrassing! What a Schmuck … I’ll say to the class. [For those of you who don’t know, a schmuck is Yiddish slang for a foolish person. Use the slang that fits your student population.]

Some times if I don’t come in with a Schmuck of the week story for a while, they’ll even ask  for one! They love to hear about how people have drawn terrible conclusions by misusing statistics (or psychometrics).

The goal isn’t the question or the story, the goal is to get their attention, and maximize their working memory capacity while we prepare them to learn about statistics.

Activate their mental representations so they can receive the information:

I know … I’m showing my information processing roots. I do think of mental representations in a very Piagetian manner. That is I believe students form something akin to schematic structures regarding the information I am teaching. As a result, the best way to make sure the new information gets encoded and stored effectively is to activate the previously stored schema!  The best way to activate their schemata is by quizzing them or questioning them. Within the first 5 minutes of class, and even in between transition from one section to the next, I have my students retrieve information, and I always make them write it down first, while my student assistant and I walk around the class and give thumbs up to those who have gotten it correct.

So, for Tuesday’s class, I’ll be asking my students what were the four classifications of statistics we learned about last week. Write them down, and define them for me. After 30 seconds or so, I’ll put up the first letter of each of the four words.

They are …

  • Descriptive Statistics
  • Inferential Statistics
  • Hypothesis Testing Statistics
  • Finding Association Statistics

This not only helps students to evaluating the effectiveness of their studying, but it also serves as a “self test” thus they get all of the benefits of that. It provides me with a sense of who is on track and who might need a bit of a push. Most importantly, it activities the schema from the prior class, so the new information being added today will be more effectively encoded and hence stored.

James Lang isn’t alone in believing the most important time in your class is the first five minutes … make it count!

I hope your semester is off to a great start!

Happy teaching!!!

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Beginning the Semester …

Hello All,

Yes, it’s been a while since I posted. But the incredible thing about being a professor is we get a fresh start every semester. And the fall semester, in many ways, is the most exciting.

For me, one of the exciting parts of right before the fall semester starts is that I get to meet and provide professional development to our incoming faculty. For the last few years, there just weren’t that many new faculty, especially of the tenured track variety. But today, I was able to meet several. I hope this is a trend that continues.

This year’s professional development workshop was also a bit different. In the past, I always talked about syllabus formation. And, today, I did as well. You can find information from prior blogs on syllabus formation here, and here.

This year, however, I was also asked to talk to faculty about how to be successful with students including office hours and grading. Now you might not think these two things have anything in common … but they do.

Firstly, each of your institutions may have some rule or expectations for you with regard to office hours and grading. Please, folks … if it’s not going to negatively impact your teaching and your students learning, appeasing administrators goes a long way. Being a professor and being in a relationship are similar … pick your battles, lest you be viewed as a griping malcontent.

But simply following the expectations may not be enough …

There are two variables associated with academic success that we should keep in mind.

  • Does the professor possess high expectations for his/her students?
  • Is the professor meeting the needs of the students?

If you are interested in learning more about how to do these two things making use of grading and office hours, the attached powerpoint “Welcome to ESU” can provide you with additional details.

I would love to hear from those of you teaching applied statistics …

  • What are some ways you articulate high expectations to your students?
  • What are some of those expectations?
  • How have students responded to your high expectations?
  • What kind of struggles have you had in meeting students’ needs?
  • Do you have any tips or recommendations for meeting students’ needs?

If you have answers to any of these questions, my name is Bonnie Green, and I can be found at East Stroudsburg University.  I would love to hear from you.

Happy start of the semester!

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