Scaffolding Content

Guiding students through the learning process toward greater understanding.        

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Scaffolding through design

Scaffolding is an instructional practice where a teacher gradually removes guidance and support as students learn and become more competent. Support can be for content, processes, and learning strategies. This requires careful planning, initial assessment of students’ prior knowledge and monitoring of growth to determine which supports are needed and which can be removed. As a student grows, they begin more difficult challenges that require new supports that will eventually fade.

The goals of scaffolding are to increase student proficiency and develop their skills as self-regulated learners. This is achieved by providing an appropriate amount of instructional support based on student needs and context complexity. As students grow as learners, scaffolding can be changed, reduced or removed over time.

For example, one learning outcome of a biology class may be to label and describe the functions of a cell. To scaffold this information, the instructor first assesses students’ prior knowledge and chunks lessons into digestible bites. During class, students are provided with diagrams and guided notes. Students also have access to interactive 3D software that allows them to analyze cell components and their interactions. In the early stages of learning, students can use their notes and textbooks during formative assessments and assignments. They also receive both automated and instructor feedback on their submissions. Over time these scaffolds fade (for example: less instructor support, no use of notes on formative assessments) and students continue more independently.

Zone of Proximal Development

Zone of Proximal Development showing outer "Can't do" area, "can do with assistance" area (instruct here) and innermost "can do independently" area.

Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) is the difference between what students can do independently and with support. It is the additional space in which students can learn, practice and achieve what they would not be able to without additional support and guidance.

Teaching below the Zone of Proximal Development (see diagram) results in students reviewing mainly what they already know and practicing what they are good at, causing minimal learning. On the other hand, teaching only concepts students know nothing about leads to frustration and failure, limiting learning as well. Although the learning process is often accompanied by some level of confusion and initial failure, scaffolding is used to minimize unnecessary struggles to support student success. Teaching within the ZPD allows students to use their prior knowledge in meaningful ways while receiving guidance and practice opportunities to eventually reach the course’s learning outcomes independently.

Scaffolding your course

Scaffolding can be implemented into your course using a variety of methods:

Scaffolding over time

Scaffolding is a process that should be strategically embedded into both the design and instruction of your course. In many cases, it follows a similar progression as shown in the diagram below.

Steps in the scaffolding process: determine what students already know (prior knowledge); set a goal for learning (learning outcomes); plan instructional supports or how skills/strategies can be broken down; Implement lessons and monitor progress (formative assessment/feedback); fade support over time for students to become independently successful ; and continue building on content, monitoring, and providing feedback.

Scaffolding strategies

A variety of scaffolding strategies can be embedded into the overall course design or individual lesson plans. Others may occur during synchronous teaching and learning as opportunities arise. Although these strategies are categorized, they can be helpful in multiple areas.

Unit and Lesson Planning
  • Determine students’ background/prior knowledge
  • “Chunk” complex skills or assignments into smaller “digestible bites”
  • Divide instruction into mini-lessons with periodic checkpoints
  • Logically and meaningfully set up course structure
  • Provide additional supports, resources and references
  • Ensure scaffolds are accessible and inclusive
  • Incorporate technology support
Instructional Practices
  • Share lesson goals or objectives
  • Activate and build upon students’ prior knowledge
  • Model skills and strategies
  • Use guided instruction and practice
  • Include multi-modal instruction (audio, visual, multi-media)
  • Pair or group students for peer collaboration
  • Share examples and exemplars
  • Provide steps, processes or procedures
Monitoring Learning
  • Regularly give feedback and guidance
  • Use formative assessments to gauge student learning
  • Provide answer keys or self-checking opportunities
  • Guide students to take ownership of their learning
  • Adjust instruction based on assessment results
Learning Activities
  • Guided practice (peer-peer or peer-expert)
  • Group work
  • Collaborative writing
  • Discussion boards
  • Open question forums
  • Prompts and guiding questions
  • Chunking large assignments into smaller sections
  • Outlines, guided notes or graphic organizers
  • Self-checks or reflections
  • Formative assessments

Explicit instruction is a way to scaffold instruction by increasing student work through the following three stages:

Scaffolding model

Faculty member teaching in a classroom.
Instruction – "I do"
  • Modeling and thinking aloud is done by the instructor.
Group of students working together in a classroom.
Guided practice – "We do"
  • Students work together.
  • Students and instructor work together.
Individual student working on an engineering project.
Independent practice – "You do"
  • Students work on their own.


Use this worksheet to develop a scaffolding plan:

  • Step 1: Choose an area of your course that would benefit from scaffolding strategies: project, culminating assignment, exam, challenging concept, etc. 
  • Step 2: Determine the steps, stages, or parts students need to learn or practice to develop proficiency.
  • Step 3: Reflect on previous semesters, if applicable. Are there aspects that students struggled with in the past?
  • Step 4: Align these concepts and knowledge to various units or modules of your course. How will these concepts and skills be scaffolded throughout?

Once you have completed this process for one component of your course, determine if there are other areas that might need a scaffolding plan.

Next steps

When you have finished scaffolding content, the next step is to build in active learning.