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Supporting students just-in-case versus just-in-time

Academic InsightSupporting students just-in-case versus just-in-time

December 2, 2021

Scaffolding - supports provided to students to assist them in meeting a learning goal - is a universally beneficial pedagogical tool, right? Dr. Juli K. Dixon, Professor of Mathematics Education, argues that the timing of this scaffolding is critical. Dixon differentiates between two types of scaffolds: “just-in-case” supports, which are provided to students before they attempt a challenging task, and “just-in-time” supports, which are provided the moment a student starts to struggle or demonstrates they need help.

To paint a picture of this distinction, consider this math problem:

Elise invited some friends over for dinner, and she plans to make fajitas. She goes to the grocery store and spends $2.61 on red bell peppers. The peppers cost $1.08 per pound.  How many pounds of red pepper did Elise buy?

Now consider how a teacher might go about helping their students solve it:

Teacher: How could we express $1.08 per pound as a ratio?

Student: $1.08/1 pound

Teacher: How could we use this information to set up a proportion that includes the amount Elise spends on peppers?

Student: $1.08/1 pound = $2.61/x pounds

Teacher: How could we solve for x?

Student: Cross multiply and solve.

Teacher: Great! Once you have finished your calculation, let me know what you got.

Just-in-case scaffolding

In the above example, the teacher is providing support to the students. However, the cognitive demand of the task - or the amount of thinking students need to do - is significantly diminished by the teacher's scaffolded questioning. The student is not expected to make sense of the problem or consider the concepts they might draw upon to answer the question at hand. The teacher has instead broken down the problem into discrete steps with the student merely filling in the blanks. A high degree of support is given before the student has shown that they might need this level of scaffolding - before they have even shown they might possibly struggle. This is what is meant by a "just-in-case" scaffold.

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Just-in-time scaffolding

Just-in-time scaffolding, by contrast, offers support when students show signs of struggle, not before. In this model of scaffolding, Dixon explains, teachers give students space and time to grapple with a problem. Then, when students begin to struggle, the teacher may provide just enough information and open-ended questions to maintain the level of cognitive demand in the original task, make sure the student can re-engage, and keep them in the drivers’ seat of solving the problem.

Consider the following alternative student-teacher dialogue:

Elise invited some friends over for dinner, and she plans to make fajitas. She goes to the grocery store and spends $2.61 on red bell peppers. The peppers cost $1.08 per pound.  How many pounds of red pepper did Elise buy?

Teacher: What concepts do you think we can draw upon to begin answering this question?

Student: I see a unit rate expressed in “the peppers cost $1.08 per pound.”

Teacher: Interesting, that seems helpful.  How might we leverage this information to answer the question?

Student: I think that this gives us enough information to set up a proportion.

Teacher: That seems like a viable strategy.  Give it a try and then we’ll check back in.

In this case the teacher’s questioning helps to direct the student's thinking, but unlike the previous example, ensures that the cognitive load remains the responsibility of the student.

Why timing matters

It can be difficult to suspend support and let students face difficulty head-on. But this is precisely what learners need to thrive.

In their publication “Principles to Action: Ensuring Math Success for All”, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics draw a contrast between supports that unproductively preempt or productively promote struggle:

  • Unproductive belief: An effective teacher makes the mathematics easy for students by guiding them step by step through problem solving to ensure that they are not frustrated or confused.
  • Productive belief: An effective teacher provides students with appropriate challenge, encourages perseverance in solving problems, and supports productive struggle in learning mathematics.

Indeed, elsewhere on Yup’s blog we have written about the importance of productive struggle. Jo Boaler, professor of Math Education, explains: “Neuroscientists have found that mistakes are helpful for brain growth and connectivity and if we are not struggling, we are not learning. Not only is struggle good for our brains but people who know about the value of struggle improve their learning potential.”

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Whereas just-in-case scaffolding thwarts this important process of productive struggle by preemptively taking the thinking off of the student, professor Juli Dixon writes that just-in-time scaffolding nurtures “productive perseverance by allowing students to engage in demanding tasks and then assisting them to maintain the engagement when they struggle.”

This is not only an issue of appropriately supporting students in specific assignments. Dixon notes that there are larger equity implications at play. If preemptive, just-in-case scaffolding - which lowers the cognitive demand of tasks - is routinely provided for students who struggle, then these same students are denied access to challenging material. However, Dixon urges educators that, “We can transition our unproductive practices to be productive by keeping the learning goal and student engagement at the foreground of our planning and by critically analyzing our instructional decisions and structures.” Making sure to integrate just-in-time over just-in-case scaffolding is a concrete step towards ensuring all students can learn and achieve at high levels.

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Yup supports students just-in-time

By the time a student logs onto Yup, they have recognized they are struggling with something in their math work. Yup tutors respond with productive scaffolding to elevate understanding over easy answer-getting and keep the thinking squarely on the student.

For instance, in this transcript of a real Yup session, the tutor opens the session with a series of strategically open-ended questions to urge the student to chart a path forward:

Tutor: “Do you have any ideas where we could begin?

[Student answers with their assessment of the problem.]

Tutor: “Okay. Any clue of how we should start trying to work that out?”

Student: “With multiplication.”

Tutor: “Okay! How so?”

Yup’s Teaching Framework trains tutors to balance questioning and explanation - allowing students to own the problem-solving process while also providing the just-in-time supports that allow them to be successful.

Are you an administrator or teacher? Contact partnerships@yup.com to learn more about bringing Yup to your school or district!


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