Scaffolding, Repetition, and Elaboration for Successful Learning

Updated: Sep 27, 2021

A number of factors play a role in learning new material including the learner’s background knowledge, the amount to learn, the type of task and performance, and the complexity of the material.

Cognitive load theory suggests that humans have limited capacity to maintain multiple thoughts, ideas, knowledge in their working memory. This can interfere with learning.

One would think that breaking complex tasks down into their component parts would improve learning, and this does appear to help keep cognitive load lower, but it does not support learning of complex tasks. Practicing the whole with supports rather than breaking complex task into parts is strong practice for learning. These supports come in the form of scaffolding and elaboration techniques. Scaffolding and elaboration are cognitive learning strategies that add more information to clarify, show relationships or connections to prior knowledge, and help students understand and work with complex material.

Although a main focus of our practice tests is to build necessary background knowledge including terms and their definitions, our practices tests do not shy away from higher order thinking and complexity. We organize and order our practice tests into sequences combining related curricular outcomes and classes (Merrienbroer, et al., 2003) of material. As a sequence of questions progresses you will find questions of increasing complexity. Or a complex topic may be addressed through a one or two paragraph, fill in the blank style of question, or multiple choice questions with sources that the student must consider in answering. However, levels of support to provide scaffolding are included, particularly early in a sequence of practices. For instance, hints may be provided for a short answer question, or selections of word choice accompany a fill in the blank and, as a sequence of practice tests continues, these supports are faded. Strengthening through repeated application of the material, as our sequences of practice tests do, is associated with strong learning of complex material (Anderson, 1996).

As stated earlier, within each sequence of practice tests and within the tests themselves, the most important points are repeated, while scaffolding support is faded. This has the added advantage that a learner can enter a sequence at a level that favours their level of knowledge and understanding, and can choose to spend more time on a sequence or class of tests on which they require more practice.

Finally in addition to this recursive style of questioning and scaffolding support, the learner can access feedback for every question following completion of the practice test. Although not under all conditions, feedback generally improves learning (Shute, 2008). Feedback that focuses on results may be informative, but does little to improve learning. However, as Shute (2008) explains, feedback with elaboration, or elaborative feedback, has a strong correlation with improved learning. This is a major focus of our practices tests and the feedback that follows each practice mostly follows this principle. That is, the feedback for each question will typically elaborate on the topic of the question, and depending on the subject of the question, explain the how, what, why, when, and where. Often, the feedback provides additional connections to prior learning, the big ideas, or fits the topic within the larger context.

Practice tests with scaffolding and feedback, especially elaborative feedback, and practice sequences that provide repetition of important material help build the background knowledge necessary for complex thinking and understanding. For more on the science of learning check out our Science-Based Learning page at and for a deeper look at some of our practice tests check


Anderson, J. R. (1996). ACT: A simple theory of complex cognition. American Psychologist, 51, 355–365.

Merrienboer, J.V., Kirschner, P., & Kester, L. (2003). Taking the Load Off a Learner's Mind: Instructional Design for Complex Learning. Educational Psychologist, 38, 13 - 5.

Shute, Valerie. (2008). Focus on Formative Feedback. Review of Educational Research. 78. 153-189.


#learning #SelfTesting #Feedback #Scaffolding #ElaborativeFeedback #PracticeTests #ComplexLearning #BackgroundKnowledge #CognitiveLoadTheory

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