Instructional Scaffolding in Online Education: What is it and How to do it Right?​

Sam Thompson
Sam Thompson
Updated November 25 2021
How to become an online tutor - young school girl giving a thumbs up
Sam Thompson
Sam Thompson
Updated November 25 2021

At the end of a school semester, a final test or a big final project is administered by a teacher or professor. The instructor then begins to understand how his/her course was received and if students were able to grasp the central concepts needed to advance to the next stage. But what if the results across the board turn out to be less than satisfactory?


Perhaps the final project lacked organization or failed to tie all the main sections into one coherent conclusion. Maybe the final scores on the test were satisfactory, but not exceptional. A teacher in this situation will oftentimes be left asking where did it all go haywire, and what could be done differently in the future to prevent inadequate results? The use of a series of learning techniques called Instructional Scaffolding, especially in an online educational setting, can be a life-saver for students.


instructional scaffolding


What is Instructional Scaffolding?

Quite simply, instructional scaffolding refers to a series of instructional techniques used to increase a student’s understanding, while ultimately pushing them to increased independence within the process of learning. The concept of instructional scaffolding was first inspired by a 19th century Russian psychologist named Lev Vygotsky, who developed a theory of cognitive development which focused on cultural considerations affecting mental development. Vygotsky often contemplated what would be the best way an expert could assist a novice.


More than a half a century later in the late 1950s, a cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner built on the concept and came up with the Scaffolding theory, using the expression to describe a child’s oral language acquisition. Bruner observed the process of how parents provide young children with informal instructional formats to assist them in acquiring the range of tools necessary to use language including vocabulary, phonology, semantics, morphology, and syntax.


The amount of guidance given to individual students for any subject will be varied based on their performance. When a child is struggling to grasp something, more support is given. When the child is progressing, less support will need to be provided. Instructional scaffolding works to maintain a child’s development in the zone of proximal development, a concept representing what a learner can do with and without assistance.


In order to better grasp the concept, just think of how the word scaffolding might be used in daily lifeScaffolding consists of the temporary structures used in building construction to support workers. Without it, workers would not be able to succeed in their project and would risk falling. Instructional scaffolding is the same concept applied to education, with teachers creating temporary support structures to keep students from falling (or failing in this case). Once a student is on their way to successfully completing their task, the scaffolding can be gradually removed. The teacher’s work is complete.


Although scaffolding is usually put in place for particular students by the teacher, scaffolding can be used to guide an entire class. There is no exact recipe for ensuring success, but a support system to nurture the necessary steps towards completing one’s goal can make a massive difference in the education of students.


Here are just a few Instructional Scaffolding examples:


  • Provide students with an example of what their end goal should be.
    Go over a project or paper that is a strong example of a successful one. It might be equally beneficial to illustrate to them what an average project looks like, as well as an unsatisfactory project. Be sure to review clearly the details that differentiate a good and poor project.


  • Help students structure the project into manageable next steps.
    A major reason why students may have trouble succeeding is because they were unable to organize or structure their project adequately. Help them create an outline that prioritizes handling one sub-task at a time.


  • Help students connect previous knowledge to current knowledge.
    Sometimes a student might be close to the answer, just simply not know it. Often if they simply applied prior knowledge to a problem, they could get one step closer to solving it. As an instructor, it may be beneficial to help connect the dots.
instructional scaffolding

How to Implement Instructional Scaffolding?

Your goal as an instructor implementing scaffolding is not only to coach, guide or to give advice, but also provide the right structure and tasks to activate social and cognitive skills.


Here are a few necessary steps to successfully implement instructional scaffolding:


  1. Create a safe learning environment.
    At the beginning of every class, it is vital to create a safe learning environment that encourages students to be active without shame or fear of ridicule. Learning a new subject is no different than learning to walk. You take steps and fall, but get up again until you’re walking perfectly. Make sure your student understands that faltering or making mistakes is a vital part of the learning process.
  2. Establish shared goals.
    A student’s motivation will rise and they will be more engaged in learning if the instructor empowers them before the class begins with something to aim for. Help them understand why they are taking certain steps so in the end it is simpler to visualize what needs to happen to get there. Establishing clear goals early will help create a path to increased success.
  3. Establish a structure to reach goals.
    Once you’ve helped establish goals, you must help create the steps to arrive at them. You must carefully select manageable tasks that relate to their curriculum end goals. Breaking up course material into easily digestible nuggets will make consumption of the lesson much easier in the long run. An overwhelmed student is not a focused student.
  4. Find the right individual pace.
    Deliver the nuggets of information at a pace that suits each student. At the beginning of each semester or block of time you’ve scheduled with students, it is important to assess where they are at. Lessons that are too difficult for certain students will isolate them. Lessons that are too easy will bore others. It is up to you to gauge where each student is at quickly so you can set up your support network for them accordingly. Designing the most effective online courses is key.
  5. Spice up the lesson.
    Every student learns differently, so it is important to use variety in communicating messages, especially online when a distraction is only a click away. Why explain something when it may be more efficient and entertaining to simply show it? Use diagrams, powerpoint presentations, or make students especially happy by playing videos to illustrate your point.

  6. Give feedback.
    Students not only need an ample amount of structure to get from A to B, but also feedback. Feedback helps students understand where they are at in the process. Obviously, you should keep the feedback positive and focused on the end goal. You might also experiment with the idea of the students themselves summarizing where they are at in the process, discussing what’s been completed and what has yet to be accomplished.
  7. Provide tailored assistance.
    Teachers must be able to adjust to the needs of various students. An instructor may discuss, model, prompt, or cue, depending on the individual needs of a particular student.
  8. Foster independence.
    You have guided a student carefully towards their goals, but you must also know when to pull back to allow students to complete tasks on their own. This will help increase their confidence. Also, feel free to allow certain students help other students for an additional boost.
  9. Incorporate Group Work.
    Ask students to summarize what they’ve learned and accomplished with another student. This fosters leadership in the students and allows you to assess their progress.  
instructional scaffolding

Why is Instructional Scaffolding Important For Online Learning?

Scaffolding in online education can assist greatly in fostering engaging group discussions that are not always easy to foster online. Without it, students demonstrate a poor ability to regulate their learning, and failed to gain a conceptual understanding of the topic (Hill, J. & Hannafin, M. (1997). In a publication entitled Instructional Scaffolding in Online Learning Environment: A Meta-Analysis, Nurual Jamaat and Farhana & Zaidatun Tasir chronicled the types of instructional scaffolding examples that must be embedded in online learning. They include:


  • Conceptual scaffolding, which helps students decide what to consider in learning and guide them to key concepts.
  • Procedural scaffolding, which helps students use appropriate tools effectively.
  • Strategic scaffolding, which assists students in finding alternative strategies to solve difficult problems.
  • Metacognitive scaffolding, which assists students to consider carefully what they are learning throughout the process and help other students reflect on what they have learnt. This helps in building a sense of community among learners.


Face-to-face teaching is a completely different experience from teaching students online. In person, an instructor can closely oversee what a student is doing, observing how a student is processing a lesson and reacting to the situation accordingly. Teaching students online without taking certain considerations can result in students getting lost in the fold.


Instructional scaffolding provides a learning environment that is supportive, which is vital within an online space that can be isolating. Students are encouraged to ask questions and engage with their classmates when learning new course material. The teacher does not sit at the front of the class or the center of the circle. They are part of the wider circle with the students, serving more in mentor role. As a result, students typically take a more active role in their learning.


Teaching students who are not physically in the classroom requires instructors to constantly adapt to the virtual environment and adjust their techniques accordingly. It may not be obvious if a student is fully on pace, so providing scaffolding around various portions of a lesson is vital. If an instructor begins feeling participation levels decreasing as the lesson continues on, he/she may breakout students into smaller groups to liven things up. They might also use this feature when needing to work with a student individually but not wishing to do so publicly.


In another scenario, an instructor who has grown uncertain if a student is fully comprehending the major elements of each lesson might administer quizzes to gauge understanding. Perhaps if the entire class is collectively failing to grasp a concept, group activities can be carried out on a digital whiteboard. Instructors who utilize the positive attributes of the technology will have simultaneously minimized any potential negatives.


instructional scaffolding


Succeeding with Instructional Scaffolding in Online Education

Scaffolding is about guiding your students through a carefully planned process. If you were to ask your student to read an entire book, and write a detailed essay of the main themes by the end of the week, you would have a lot of overwhelmed students. The workload would be too much. The lack of detail on what points to focus on in their essay would infuriate them. Some students might struggle to complete the assignment on time. And the ones who do manage to complete their work on time might not turn in a spectacular final result.


An online instructor must help foster comfortable social interaction if they want their scaffolding techniques to be effective. If the instructor fails to implement the right dynamic in this online setting, collaboration, one of the main keys in instructional scaffolding, will not be productive.


Since you are not sitting in an actual classroom when engaged in online teaching, it is also vital that you know your students’ limitations. Are some of your students driven to distraction with an inability to self-regulate? If so, it will be necessary to adjust your scaffolding techniques to avoid them being less effective in comparison to these techniques used by an in person instructor.




Now you have a basic understanding of what is scaffolding instruction. Your goal is to help learners bridge a cognitive gap, whether that be providing feedback, explaining, offering behavior for imitation, or asking questions that require a cognitive answer. Having the right strategies or scaffolding for each student will mean watching and listening closely to what the learner does, and finding the most appropriate response.


Your best bet is to facilitate the learning process as opposed to simply directing it.  With the right goals set in place and the proper structure to get there, students can move from being reliant on their instructor to self-sufficient learners.

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