Building an Online Course that Scaffolds Student Growth

Building an Online Course that Scaffolds Student Growth

How do you allot time in an 8 or 16-week course? Consider planning your course like a season of a well-scripted show, with a slow build-up, character-building episodes, a climax, and resolution. This approach provides students with content and practice early, and real-world problem-solving later on. It allows students to do more with the knowledge, skills, and abilities they acquire and pairs well with project-based learning.
This list of tips is adapted from the book "The Online Teaching Survival Guide" by Judith Boettcher and Rita-Marie Conrad (2nd edition). A copy is available for you to borrow in the AEI Teaching and Learning Library.

Phase 1: Course Beginnings: Starting off on the Right Foot

  1. Presence – This is all about ‘being there’. Social Presence means introducing yourself as a person while Teaching presence means covering course outcomes and acting in a monitoring/mentoring role.
  2. Community – Build a space where students can support one another, think “out-loud”, and learn about one another.
  3. Clear expectations – Don’t forget the administrative stuff: learner expectations, policies, practical tools, important dates, etc.


  1. Start casually with a getting to know you exercise such as introductory videos or posts
  2. Have students express their learning goals, confidence levels, and prior experience to help you measure their ‘Zone of Proximal Development’
  3. Have a syllabus quiz to make sure students read at least the basic policies, dates, etc. in the syllabus material
  4. Give a short survey about tech skills to assess their comfort learning online and to anticipate roadblocks to learning
  5. Have students rewrite the 2 most important learning outcomes in own words or answer how they want this course to impact their life
  6. Introduce potential new tech tools in a low-stakes way
  7. Show them where to find academic or other support resources

Phase 2: The Early Middle: Keeping the Ball Rolling

  1. Ensure engagement and access to the course content – To build social presence, have some small group work to build comfort and kinship with 1 or 2 other students. For teaching presence, focus on things that come up - monitoring, mentoring via LMS tools.
  2. Nurture the growth of the course community – Use communication and support to strengthen and encourage curiosity and learning. You should be in a rhythm and getting into high gear, encourage students to be clear about their understanding.


  1. Have students give formative feedback on how the course is going for them
  2. Support students in small teams: vary the groups, such as having small and ever-changing discussion posts rather than the whole class
  3. Students should be in a routine of using course tools
  4. Encourage active forum engagement
  5. Introduce peer review with guiding rubrics and instructor supervision
  6. Apply concepts in problems, but nothing too messy or “real-world” yet. Keep it clearly structured
  7. If doing a large class project, have them identify their topic and begin exploring it.

Phase 3: The Late Middle: Letting Go of the Power

  1. Questioning - Ask students to gauge their own learning through discussions and activities. Ask them more ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions than ‘what’ questions.
  2. Assessing – Don’t let up on continuous/multiple methods for formative feedback to prevent surprises later on.
  3. Project coaching – See yourself as a mentor or facilitator rather than a director, depending on student levels. Your job is to Help them get unstuck. If the first half of the course is the “fire hose”, the second half is slowing down, integrating this new knowledge.
  4. Empowerment - Mentor students, simulate real-life, help students practice and analyze one another's work.


  1. An activity like ‘interview the expert’ can create deeper learning that integrates knowledge: a small group of students learn about a topic and are interviewed by other students
  2. A “Stump the Teacher” activity can have students stretch the limits of what they know. It can be fun for you, too!
  3. Use Socratic questioning
  4. Introduce messier real-world problems
  5. Bring in outside experts to speak to the class
  6. Continue providing formative feedback
  7. Continue with small group work
  8. Encourage connections to previous work and prior experience

Phase 4: Closing Weeks: Pruning, Reflecting, and Wrapping Up

  1. Learner independence – Students are familiar with course concepts already. They can relate them to one another, can apply them, and can help their peers.
  2. Reflecting on course knowledge – No student can ever memorize everything. Ask them what the core concepts they’ll take into lives/careers are.
  3. Completing assignments/projects – Remember, projects are an expression of course knowledge.
  4. Coaching – Give guidance and encouragement. It can be tricky to balance too much/too little help at this stage.


  1. Try out advanced peer review such as the whole class grading a presentation (with your rubric and supervision/final-say).
  2. Hold an end-of-course celebration!
  3. Try to give feedback during the course, not afterwards.
  4. Collect formative feedback to improve your course design.
  5. Ask students what they’ve learned and how they’ll use it, and what questions have been left unanswered.

    • Related Articles

    • Student Email Login

      Student Email Login To login to your student email, there are 2 ways to approach this. Option 1: 1.Visit Microsoft Outlook       2. Click on “sign in” 3.Your username login information is:             a.Username:           ...
    • Building Community and Instructor Presence

      Being an active presence in an online class isn't as intuitive as when we are face-to-face. In this workshop we will look at simple ways an instructor can create a strong learning community in an online course. Learn how to build instructor presence ...
    • How To Sign In To Your Student Email Using Outlook App (iOS)

      How To Sign In To Your Student Email Using Outlook App (iOS) 1. Open up the "App Store".   2.  Locate the "Microsoft Outlook" app from the App Store. 3. Click on "Get" to download the app. If you installed Outlook before, click on the cloud icon as ...
    • Strategies for Video Messaging online students

      With fully online courses it is often difficult to develop community among the class or to make the course feel personable to students.  One easy thing to incorporate that may help partially overcome these barriers is to send out regular video ...
    • How do I Teach Online with Zoom?

      Do you want a fast, convenient, and free way to host meetings or classes online? Saint Paul College gives you access to Zoom as a web conferencing tool. You can host meetings, class lectures, or conference calls with audio, video, screen sharing, ...