Scaffolding: A Promising Approach to Fostering Critical Thinking

Article excerpt

Teaching students how to think rather than what to think is a primary goal of higher education (Daly, 2001; Kronholm, 1996; Myllykangas & Foose, 2007), yet many of our undergraduate students struggle when asked to engage in critical thinking. Thinking critically means learners are engaged in "reflective and reasonable thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe or do" (Ennis, 1985 p. 44), and many college instructors already employ various strategies to engage in this process (e.g. service learning activities, case studies, and journaling). However, the extent to which critical thinking occurs in the college classroom depends largely on students' ability to challenge assumptions, deconstruct information, and reflect on personal beliefs (Brookfield, 1987). In our experiences teaching in higher education, many undergraduate students lack these skills, which may be problematic as they begin to engage in real world contexts. To better prepare our students to be effective leaders in the field, today's learners must be taught how to think critically.


One approach we have found useful in fostering critical thinking is scaffolding, which, as both a pedagogical technique and a process, provides a structure for critical thinking. The process of scaffolding involves both the construction and systematic deconstruction of a cognitive support structure that accommodates a student's individual needs (Wood, Bruner, & Ross, 1976). Additionally, the scaffolding technique serves as a tool that assists learners in completing complex tasks that otherwise would be beyond their capabilities (Puntambekar & Hubscher, 2005).

Integral to scaffolding is the social interaction between the learner and instructor. Together, they develop a mutual understanding of the activity and its goals, thereby sharing ownership of the process. Through this, the instructor provides support and ongoing diagnosis of the learner's abilities by altering the scaffold to accommodate the learner's needs. Instructional techniques such as expert modeling, student-expert collaboration, and on-going assessment are employed to construct the scaffold. Eventually, the instructor removes the scaffold so the learner takes responsibility for his or her own learning (Wood et al., 1976), which, once completed, leaves the learner more capable than before the use of the scaffold (Lepper, Drake, & O'Donnell-Johnson, 1997).

Application of Scaffolding Techniques

In an effort to teach critical thinking during a semester-long commercial recreation management course, we designed a scaffolded syllabus that incorporated case-based learning activities. Case studies, as a pedagogical tool, are realistic scenarios that require students to interpret evidence, analyze information, and formulate an argument (Klebba & Hamilton, 2007). The ability to demonstrate each of these skills requires students to employ critical thinking. Therefore, we implemented a critical thinking scaffold to guide the design and facilitation of these case study analyses. Following the fundamentals of scaffolding, we integrated these elements into the syllabus: shared understanding of the scaffold, expert modeling, ongoing assessment, and deconstruction of the scaffold.

We established the critical thinking scaffold in the course syllabus by designing case analysis assignments that increased in complexity and value as the semester progressed. The first case analysis consisted of a 5-point in-class discussion structured around concrete questions such as, "Name the primary stakeholders in this organization," "State your recommendation," and "Identify evidence that supports your recommendation." After the activity, students reflected on the processes they used to formulate a recommendation, specifically with regard to the action words "Name," "State," and "Identify." Several students expressed frustration at the constrained nature of this analysis, which in turn generated discussion on the goal of the exercise within the larger scaffold. …