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To scaffold or not to scaffold? The first big misconception about rigor

By: Karin Hess, EdD, Consultant

Think back to the last really rigorous and complex task that you worked on. Did you develop and complete it from start to finish all on your own? Or did you perhaps talk with colleagues, look at models, or seek out related information or examples from experts? Did you develop drafts and get feedback on your work before you felt satisfied that you had fulfilled expectations?

Over two decades ago I heard Dr. Howard Gardner make a comment that has stayed with me all these years: “Every complex task in life is a project, and we rarely—if ever—do them alone.” I think the point he was making then, and one that has since been supported by cognitive research, is that (Hess & Gong, 2014).

So why is it that educators seem to hesitate to provide some form of scaffolding when presenting students with more complex and rigorous tasks? Trust me when I say this:

First, let’s define scaffolding

There are several forms that scaffolding can take. Scaffolding can come from any aid that supports thinking and analyzing the content, e.g., teacher, peers, content, task (such as breaking it down into manageable parts), and materials. The purpose is to provide support during learning in order to gradually remove the support when learning becomes solidified and/or the learner becomes more independent and able to transfer learned skills to new situations. This is why it’s often referred to as “scaffolded instruction.”

Types of scaffolding strategies include:

  • Teacher/peer scaffolding. More support is provided when introducing new concepts, tasks, or thinking strategies (e.g., developing a mathematical argument); support is gradually removed over time; peer scaffolding would include peers reading and discussing together, challenging each other’s ideas/solutions, or solving complex problems in more than one way. Guided think-alouds are another example of teacher scaffolding.

  • Content scaffolding. Introducing simpler versions of the (essence of) content/concepts before more challenging (deeper or broader) ones are tackled.

  • Task scaffolding. Introducing simpler tasks before tackling more challenging ones or expecting new applications, and breaking complex tasks into smaller steps.

  • Materials scaffolding. Using graphic organizers, study guides, and visual cues, which leads to seeing predictable patterns in texts or problem-solving contexts.

Rigor, depth of knowledge, and scaffolding

The most common misconception I hear about rigor and depth of knowledge (DOK) goes something like this: “Not all students can think deeply,” or “Young students cannot think deeply before they have ‘mastered’ their math facts,” or “Students don’t need help to get to deeper thinking.” I say, wrong, wrong, wrong.

Here is what some of the research says:

  •  Think Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development (ZPD). Social interaction, group problem solving, and meaningful mathematical discourse will move students from what they can do today with help to what we want them to be able to do tomorrow, independently.

  • Do that challenging task with others first. DOK 3 tasks (e.g., using calculations, diagrams, and more than one approach to develop a mathematical argument) and DOK 4 tasks (e.g., class projects that integrate math and science) are not meant to only be done independently, especially at first.

  • Oral language and meaningful discourse supports reasoning. (This might be in response to questions like, Why do you say that? Can you provide some evidence for that? Would you like to change your thinking about that? Why?)

  • Small group discussions and problem solving provide simultaneous engagement—all students are talking and thinking. Whole class discussions should be minimized and used for groups critiquing groups. Don’t let the class “workhorses” do the thinking for everyone!

One easy strategy is to plan questioning and formative probes from DOK 1-2-3-4 over the course of a lesson or unit of study. (See the table below for an example.) Consider all DOK levels in your planning, even if you don’t use all of them in the lesson or unit. Sometimes start with the larger, more interesting and challenging question; other times start small, but end big (meaning deep).

What information is in this data table? How will you organize your data to find some patterns? Which data support your solution or reasoning? Analyze these 3 data sets. What conclusions about… are supported with these data?

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Hess, K., & Gong, B. (2014). Ready for college & career? Achieving the Common Core standards and beyond through deeper student-centered learning (Research syntheses). Retrieved from
Hess, K., McDivitt, P., & Fincher, M. (2008). Who are those 2% students and how do we design items that provide greater access for them? Results from a pilot study with Georgia students. Paper presented at the 2008 CCSSO National Conference on Student Assessment, Orlando, FL. Tri-State Enhanced Assessment Grant: Atlanta, GA. Retrieved from

Karin Hess, EdD, author and consultant
Karin Hess, EdD, author and consultant
Karin Hess has extensive experience developing practical approaches for using learning progressions as the foundation for formative, interim, and performance assessments. She was formerly an associate at the Center for Assessment and has worked with multiple US states to develop grade-level learning expectations and test specifications.


  1. Sandra Hendred says:

    Excellent article! Your comment, “scaffolding is not cheating,” is golden.

  2. David De Francesco says:

    Scaffolding is essential while planning in a modern day classroom. In today’s classroom, students come from a plethora of ability levels. Therefore, it is key to scaffold information and tasks that meet the different needs of students. With that said, I wonder what questions classroom teachers have in regards to scaffolding how we plan instruction in a collaborative setting. So, what I am asking is, how do teams scaffold their daily and unit plans? Also, what comments can be made in regards to applying scaffolding to summative assessments?

  3. Karin Hess says:

    Thanks for your comment and questions about scaffolding. Time and again, educators cite collaboration with colleagues as leading to more effective instruction and assessment practices across a school system. Two (or more) heads are almost always better than one, especially if one of the team members is a special educator or ELL specialist.

    Step 1: First “think small” when planning daily lessons. For example, look for places in the lesson to stop and probe student thinking to uncover misconceptions, or have students work in small groups to answer a deeper question.

    Step 2: In both lesson and unit planning, consider where students might hit bumps in the road. Usually this is related to deeper conceptual understanding, such as taking apart a more complex problem to solve, but it could also be related to students’ ability to manage multi-step tasks (often called executive function).

    Step 3: Reflect together. Use small formative assessments regularly to collaboratively examine student work, and document what works with all or most students and why. Toss out what did not work, and move on.

    As to scaffolding in summative assessments, the chief point is that scaffolding is appropriate in a summative assessment when it does not alter the construct being assessed.

    Many performance assessments included in state tests have some form of scaffolding built in. On day one, students might read and discuss several texts from a variety of sources; on day two they get a prompt to write an argument or develop an informational piece on that topic. As a result of this scaffolding, the reading of those texts will not negatively influence their ability to write effectively. In other words, the scaffolding to understand texts (via discussion and discourse) is not what is being assessed; however, students must be able to draw evidence from those texts in their writing. That is what will be assessed in the quality of the writing.

    There are several other examples as well:
    • Some reading assessments “chunk grade-level text” and insert comprehension questions after each chunk. These are the same questions and texts that all students will be assessed on.
    • Some science performance tasks allow students to work in pairs to collect data before they graph and analyze data individually.
    • There are “curriculum embedded” activities to be done prior to taking certain summative assessments in science. This is so all students will experience conducting a classroom investigation and later be given data from a similar investigation to analyze on the state science assessment.

    Regardless of the nature of the scaffolding in these examples (formatting, collaboration, pre-assessment activities), the scaffolded aspect is not the assessed component and does not change what is being assessed.

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