Cognitive Load Theory is a highly popular concept in education, with many teachers using its principles in the classroom. One way to help students manage their cognitive load is by scaffolding support. For it to be effective, scaffolding needs to be managed carefully throughout a student’s learning journey, as what works for a novice learner may be harmful for a more advanced expert. This is known as The Expertise Reversal Effect.
So, what exactly are scaffolding and The Expertise Reversal Effect? And how can you use scaffolding in the most effective way?
What is Scaffolding?
Scaffolding is when teachers gradually reduce the amount of support that they give as students develop their expertise.
When students are learning something new, providing them with extra support can help them reach higher levels of skill acquisition and comprehension. As they internalise the new information, it is beneficial to reduce this support to help them become independent learners.
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What is the Expertise Reversal Effect?
The Expertise Reversal Effect is based on the idea that novices do not learn the same way that experts do.
For novices, learning new information can be intimidating and overwhelming. They also do not have a very well developed and nuanced schema, or internal working model. For this reason, the most effective way to teach novices is by explicit instruction and offering very structured support.
On the other hand, the most effective way to teach experts is by giving them challenging tasks that allow them to draw upon their previous knowledge. This is because experts have internalised key concepts, ideas and skills, and as such, don’t need an external to provide this to the same extent.
Research suggests that what may be beneficial for beginner learners may actually be counterproductive for advanced learners. One study showed that when novices studied Shakespearian texts accompanied by explanatory notes, they performed better in a comprehension test than those who were not given the notes. However, when the same notes were given to Shakespearian experts, the reverse effect occurred.
So, what does this mean for teachers?
Once you know about the Expert Reversal Effect, scaffolding support is the logical next step. To use scaffolding effectively, you have to consistently assess where your students are on their learning journey to understand if they are novices, intermediates or experts. Depending on this evaluation, there are different strategies that you can use to best support learning at each stage:
At the novice stage…
If your students are learning a new topic for the very first time, they will probably need some extra support to fully understand concepts and ideas.
Providing students with explicit instruction is a great way to do this, with research suggesting that giving new learners explicit instructions can dramatically improve learning. Giving your students explicit instructions is effective at preventing cognitive overload. This is because they will use less of their working memory capacity to understand the task, and can use more cognitive effort to process and make links between new information.
At the intermediate stage…
If you have exposed your students to a particular topic before, you can begin to slowly reduce the amount of support that you are giving them.
One way to do this is to provide them with worked examples on how to complete a particular task or answer a particular question. Research supports the idea that worked examples are an effective strategy to support student learning at the earlier stages. Providing your students with worked examples helps relieve their cognitive load, so that their working memory can focus on remembering the correct steps instead of problem solving.
For more information about worked examples, we would strongly recommend reading this brilliant guide by The Education Endowment Foundation. Their FAME model offers really nice practical steps to help make worked examples effective.
Another way to reduce the amount of support you are giving to your students even more is to give them completion tasks. These are essentially a more challenging version of worked examples, which get progressively more difficult, as some information is missing, with gaps for students to fill in. Research suggests that using completion tasks improved student learning more than solving conventional problems. Completion tasks provide students with some key information, so they are testing their knowledge while still avoiding cognitive overload.
At the expert stage…
If your students are experts on a particular topic or concept, you should cut back on support and encourage independent learning instead.
Research suggests that the support that is highly effective for novice learners is not only ineffective for expert learners, but can actually have negative consequences. This is because, unlike novices, experts are able to refer back to their own schemas when completing tasks. If they are given additional scaffolding on top of this, there will be an overlap of information between the experts’ own personal schemas and the scaffolded guidance. Additional working memory resources will be required to decipher the best information to use which may result in cognitive overload and slow down the learning process.
The most important thing to remember when trying to make the most out of scaffolding in your classroom is to consistently evaluate your students’ learning. Understanding the stage of learning that your students are at, for example, if they are novices, intermediates or experts, will help you to apply the correct strategies in your classroom.
Although guidance is available on tailoring teaching techniques to different stages, it is worth noting that there will be occasions where different strategies work best. For example, experts will still benefit from explicit instruction on occasion. Hopefully the above provides a broad guideline to operate within.