Scaffolding Complex Work

Scaffolding: Providing Support as Students Learn

In the initial phases of building, construction workers need temporary support structures called scaffolding to accomplish their work. Similarly, our students need support and guidance as they learn complex concepts and skills that they are unlikely to master on their own. Scaffolding is the temporary structure we provide to help students bridge the gap between their current levels of knowledge or skill and the levels they need to attain. Effective learning happens in this “zone of proximal development,” where students can stretch, with appropriate support, to accomplish tasks they couldn’t achieve alone.

If students typically struggle with a concept or skill, or if you’re not satisfied with their performance, they would probably benefit from stronger scaffolding. For example, if you were teaching students to write code, scaffolding might involve first modeling the process or sharing a sample; letting the class tackle another example and helping them talk through strategies; then assigning a problem to smaller groups; and finally giving students individual practice. With writing assignments, students can work through preliminary stages of a project in a structured way, with feedback, perhaps analyzing some examples and then submitting a topic proposal, annotated bibliography, project outline, and/or partial rough draft, before writing the entire paper.

It helps if we can isolate the component skills needed for a particular assignment or exercise and allow students to practice with the pieces before they assemble them. When we’re building scaffolds, our own advanced levels of mastery can actually present an obstacle: We tend to forget what it’s like not to know the material we’ve spent decades studying, so we forget (and even forget how) to break down the thinking tasks for novice learners. We might ask students to analyze a case, for instance, or develop an argument, without recognizing that we’re asking them to execute half a dozen skills at once. Good scaffolding and transparent instructions help them to see what kind of reasoning they need to practice, and why, as well as what successful work would look like.

If you’d like more support in your own construction of effective learning experiences, we’re here to help. You can email us at for a consultation. We look forward to working with you!