Tips for Scaffolding in the Chemistry Classroom


Scaffolding, as many of you know, is a term educational experts (or people who want to sound fancy) use to describe how to break down a concept for students so that they can reach a goal or a level you want them to.  It’s like building a ladder (or scaffolding around a building being constructed) to help a student climb up or to build upon their knowledge and understanding until they reach what they need to reach.  There are a lot of different methods you can use to scaffold a concept in science and here are just a few techniques I use as I write my own lessons.


I think one of the most important things to do while planning scaffolding is to really think about the smaller, simpler skills or tasks students need to be able to do to accomplish something.



Let’s say I want my students to be able to complete this task:

“Predict what reaction will take place between a sodium atom and a chlorine atom and draw an electron dot diagram to show the reaction.”


When I think about scaffolding, I try to think about the many places or steps in the process that might trip up a student, and I try to create some sort of practice page or activity to help with those specific “tough spots” or “stumbling blocks” or “scaffold needs”.

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In this example, to complete the electron dot diagram to show the reaction, the student would need to know how to do several smaller skills or think through several smaller steps.  Check out the flow chart below showing the smaller skills a student needs to draw a relatively simple electron dot diagram (Lewis structures) of a reaction to form sodium chloride.  Any one of these skills might trip up a student as they complete this relatively simple question.




Some students wouldn’t even need any scaffolding for this type of question.  But students who struggle with multi-step questions can really benefit from having a teacher go over each of these specific skills.  It really is a key skill of a good teacher, to be able to tell who and how many of his/her students need additional support at one of these tough spots or scaffolds.



So as a teacher, how do you anticipate what tough spots may occur when a student tries to complete a task?


Here are a few tips on coming up with and dealing with those tough spots.

1.  YOU do the task or problem and speak every thought that comes to mind out loud to hear yourself completing all of the steps that you normally do instinctually.  What you’ve done instinctually in chemistry or other science classes for years isn’t so instinctual to your students.


2. Write down every minor step or thought that you had to do or think to arrive at your goal for that task.  Is there any step that may seem difficult to a student or need reviewing before they are able to complete a particular task.


3. For each of these steps that might be “tough spots”, can you find a review worksheet or activity that you could use to help a student who needs help practice or review a skill?  The more you can anticipate and prepare ahead of time, the better your class will go!


4. I have found that when I am able to work with a student one-on-one (if the rest of the class is doing independent work or group work), often I can lead a student through questioning, helping them to arrive to the end of the task step by step, by asking them questions like the following list:


“What do you think you need to do next: do you have the right units you need?”


“If the end result needs this type of answer, and so far you have this… What do you need to do to get there?”


“What do you know about this particular chemical compound that might help you in this task?”


5.  Remember, in scaffolding, the goal isn’t to necessarily make the whole task EASIER for the student.  The goal is to give them the ladder they need to climb up to the achievement they seek!  Don’t give them the answer.  Don’t let them give up.  Give them just enough help (but not too much help!)



If you’d like an example of a few skill-type worksheets I use to help students review a particular skill, use the box below to subscribe and receive a free electron dot diagram page.  This page helps students practice their Lewis Structures for both atoms and ions!
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