Guiding Students

Of all the resources available to your students, your guidance as a content expert is the most valuable.

On this page:

What does it mean to guide students?

When teaching there are several places an instructor makes choices to guide students.

  • When you choose the focus of your course and the content involved you guide students by deciding which information is most important to learn.
  • When you grade assignments and exams you guide students by giving feedback that tells them whether their understanding or performance is correct, and hopefully information for how to improve.
  • Finally, when you meet directly with students to answer questions and explain concepts you guide student understanding.

In all of these examples the guidance provided helps students correct errors and learn more efficiently.

Why should I care about providing guidance to students?

Students are not experts in the content area they are learning. Because of this they also lack the knowledge as to whether they are making mistakes and, most importantly, how to correct these mistakes. As an instructor your guidance can increase the efficiency at which students learn

As instructors we want students to have gained knowledge and skills they do not currently have, which are our learning outcomes. These are what students should currently be unable to do on their own. For their part, students come into class with some prior knowledge, which is what they know and can do alone. As an instructor you can expand what students can do by providing guidance and scaffolding. This area is called the Zone of Proximal Development and having students learn in this zone helps increase the efficiency at which students learn.

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

While pushing students out of their current abilities or comfort zones may improve learning, this requires careful scaffolding to help them learn from and overcome failure. If students only work on what they know they will not learn much. If students are pushed too far past their knowledge or abilities, they will fail. Failure can be a good thing if students learn from it, but if they fail too often and begin to believe they can’t succeed they may quit. As student ability increases, scaffolding is then removed, increasing student independence.

Strategies for guiding students

There are several ways to guide students in your course.


To help students succeed outside of their current abilities provide careful scaffolding during learning.


To help students understand what they did well, what needs improvement, and strategies for improving, provide effective feedback.

Formative assessment

To help students improve as they learn, and help instructors adjust as they teach, provide opportunities for formative assessment throughout the course.

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