One important strategy for motivating and engaging students and facilitating deeper, more self-regulated learning is scaffolding. Coined by social constructivists Wood, Bruner, and Ross and influenced by Vygotsky’s concept of zone of proximal development [1], scaffolding takes a developmental approach to learning that identifies students’ prior knowledge and skills. A metaphor borrowed from building construction for providing temporary support, instructional scaffolding is the process of supporting student learning with guidance through modeling, peer discussion, and sequencing learning tasks into more discrete and manageable parts. As students develop their understanding, build skills, and gain confidence, the support is gradually reduced until students are ready to work independently.

While it’s tempting to believe that students should arrive to college with the necessary skills and knowledge to be successful, providing students with little to no scaffolding can result in them gaining only a cursory understanding of the concept and processes that underpin course material. Done well, scaffolding has the potential to benefit all students and help them successfully tackle increasingly complex and challenging tasks and concepts.

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Best Practices

Guiding Students in Stages

One way to scaffold learning is to break complex assignments into smaller stages or phases. This allows students to receive feedback that will guide them in successfully progressing into the next step of the assignment. This structure will provide more guidance to students, but will also ensure that students make timely progress and stay on track. An example of assignment stages would be:

Example Complex Assignment: Team Report

  • Stage 1: Outline: Provide a template to student groups to identify key elements of their report.
  • Stage 2: Presentation Draft: Using the outline, and feedback from the instructor, write a draft of the team presentation that you will present to the rest of the course.
  • Stage 3: Peer Review of Presentation Draft: Review and discuss presentation draft with other groups/individuals in the course.
  • Stage 4: Report Work in Progress: Submit a progress report of the group presentation and report.
  • Stage 5: Team Report and Presentation

Facilitating a Supportive Environment

Scaffolded learning promotes a supportive environment by guiding students through a facilitated learning experience, and in turn, a supportive environment makes scaffolding more effective. When students are in a supportive environment, they are free to ask questions and receive formative feedback from their peers and instructor. Consider the following as you provide support to your learners:

Adapt Instructional Materials and Opportunities to Support Learners

Another way to scaffold students who may progress at different rates is by providing additional and/or varied instructional materials. In addition to the required readings and lectures of the course, consider incorporating these elements:

  • Learning objectives for each topic to prepare students
  • Introduce vocabulary and acronyms
  • Supplemental readings and lectures to enhance comprehension
  • Self-quizzing and study aids that leverage generative AI (refer to the AI Prompt Cookbook for assignment ideas)
  • Practice activities that reinforce and evaluate understanding

Assume the Role of Guide/Mentor

The traditional role of the instructor as the “sage on the stage” presents the instructor as the expert of content. In scaffolded learning, instructors become a guide and mentor throughout the learning process. In this “guide on the side” role, instructors support learners by designing a course that is easy to navigate, and preparing students with learning objectives and regular feedback.

Promote Formative Feedback to Guide Learning

Formative feedback is regular, ongoing feedback from low-stake assessments. This type of feedback gives more opportunities to guide and support student learning. In scaffolded learning, formative feedback helps students self-evaluate their comprehension, and instructors can quickly recognize where students are struggling. Examples of low-stake assessments include:

  • Knowledge checks in the form of quizzes
  • Class polling to assess student understanding
  • Mind maps to represent a student’s understanding of a concept and its connection to related themes or concepts
  • Multi-stage assessments

Formative assessments give opportunities to monitor student progress, and promote student retention of the material before a summative assessment (e.g., mid-term, final exam).

References and Additional Resources


Further Research

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