Pedagogy Pointer – Instructional Scaffolding


“Instructional scaffolding is a process through which a teacher adds supports for students in order to enhance learning and aid in the mastery of tasks. The teacher does this by systematically building on students’ experiences and knowledge as they are learning new skills. …(T)hese supports are temporary and adjustable. As students master the assigned tasks, the supports are gradually removed,” from the IRIS Center at Vanderbilt University.
scaffolding is a bridge between "I know" and "I do not know"
The gist of scaffolding is to take WHAT THE LEARNER KNOWS OR CAN DO and WHAT THE LEARNER DOES NOT KNOW OR CANNOT DO and BRIDGE the gap with assistance.


Northern Illinois University’s Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning lists some ways that students can benefit from scaffolding:

  • Challenges students through deep learning and discovery
  • Engages students in meaningful and dynamic discussions in small and large classes
  • Motivates learners to become better students (learning how to learn)
  • Increases the likelihood for students to meet instructional objectives
  • Provides individualized instruction (especially in smaller classrooms)
  • Affords the opportunity for peer-teaching and learning
  • Scaffolds can be “recycled” for other learning situations


To determine when it’s best to scaffold material, you need to think about past student behavior and performance.  I would recommend trying it with

  • historically difficult concepts.
  • material that relies heavily on background knowledge they SHOULD have mastered in prior classes.
  • material that will be critical for them to have mastered in your course so they can be successful in future courses.
  • a large or lengthy project.

These are all great opportunities to implement this strategy for the benefit of your students.



Scaffolding is not has hard as you may think, but it does take a little planning on the part of the instructor.  At it’s base level it’s as follows:




But scaffolding can come in may forms.


Break down large projects and assignments into smaller chunks.  This allows you, the instructor, to evaluate their learning throughout the project and provide formative feedback for their improvement.  It also saves you from grading a massive project in its entirety at the end of the semester.



Evaluate your assessments and see if there is a relationship between them.  Try to set them up so they build upon one another or prepare the students for the next assignment.  These connections can help build confidence and establish relevance.



A very simple way to scaffold is to just provide examples.  Allowing the students to see the end goal can help them see the process.  I know some don’t like showing an example because they don’t want students to just regurgitate what they are shown with no creativity, but these examples, especially for a difficult concept or project, can help.



Reflecting on learning is a great way to scaffold.  Have the students reflect on whay they are doing well or know well and where they are struggling.  Even reflecting on why they are struggling can be helpful.   Huang (2017) suggests using a few guiding questions when students reflect on their learning:
  • Recalling
  • Recapturing (capturing emotions, accomplishments, challenges)
  • Relating (identifying connections with previous materials or experiences)
  • Rationalizing (identifying patterns, creating meaning)
  • Redirecting (thinking about the future)


Matthew Lynch wrote an article entitled, “10 Scaffolding Strategies to Help All Students Reach Their Goals” for The Edvocate.  Below are a few more options he mentions in the article.

  1. Gauge what students already know. Have them contribute information about their experiences to make lessons relevant.
  2. Make predictions. By connecting contextual details and prior knowledge, students engage with information and make educated guesses about it. Their involvement in the process keeps them motivated to pursue gathering information and checking their accuracy.
  3. Model It. Show students what to do. By modeling the task, you help your students understand the steps involved in doing it.
  4. Incorporate realia. Having a real-life example can help students recognize what you’re talking about.
  5. Use sentence starters. Reluctant writers have difficulty getting started. A sentence starter helps to prime the pump by giving the student the first few words needed for a writing assignment.
  6. Get graphicVisuals and graphic organizers make intangible concepts concrete. Incorporate graphs, timelines, charts, maps, and pictures to provide students with representations they can see.
  7. Preteach key vocabulary. If students recognize the vocabulary in the lesson, they are more likely to understand what you’re teaching. Teach the vocabulary first. Then ask students to predict what they will be learning about based on the words they learned.



  1. ALWAYS start with prior knowledge.  Do an activity that allows them, either alone or in a group, to tap into what they already know about a topic, be it right or wrong.  When a student starts with prior knowledge they can more easily connect to new knowledge, even if that prior knowledge is shown to be incorrect.
  2. Give them time to talk through think pair shares, triad teams, etc.  
  3. Know when to remove the scaffold so the student does not rely on the support.  This may be tricky but the purpose of scaffolding is to get them to the place where they are on their own and self sufficient so continuing it too long turns into enabling.
  4. Check your “expert blind-spot.”  This is the point where you assume a level of understanding that the students don’t have.  Be sure to seperate this from the level of understanding you think they SHOULD have.  These are rarely the same thing.



Instructional Scaffolding to Improve Learning, Northern Illinois University Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning, 04/07/2021.

Scaffolding Learning in the Online Classroom, Wiley Education Services, 2017.

Scaffolding, University at Buffalo Center for Educational Innovation, 2020.

10 Scaffolding Strategies to Help All Students Reach Their Goals, Matthew Lynch, The Edvocate, 11/7/2018.