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Scaffolding is individualized learning experiences in which appropriate support (instructional, technological, cognitive and environmental) is provided to enable the student to progress toward the stated learning goals. Examples include:

  • Simulated practice and role play
  • Segmenting or chunking learning challenges into smaller parts
  • Managing task complexity by controlling variables such as time, number of distractors, number of sub-tasks, number of people and contextual complexities 
    • Limiting the use of jargon and meaningless (to the learner) acronyms
  • Providing positive modeling, verbal prompts and labels and technical aids
    • Instructional scaffolding improved students' critical evaluation abilities in comparison to lecture-based experiences (Dawn, et al., 2011)
  • Divergent and convergent questioning and guided discovery
  • Practicing with experienced mentors (or even upper classmen)
    • "If a novice is insufficiently prepared intellectually to make sense of the instructions, i.e. the level of development potential is less than anticipated, the scaffolding activity would have to be modified to accommodate the student. In nursing terms this could be applied to a novice and mentor working together whilst giving care," (Spouse, 1998, p. 263) 
    • Peer coaching and assessment
  • Provide potential learning pathways (sequences, menus, if-then decision plans, checklists, etc.)
  • Creating team wikis and glossaries
  • Concept mapping and sequencing activities
  • Utilizing whole (simplification) and part (segmenting) practice experiences
  • Varying the practice contexts (transitioning toward more authentic/real-world experiences)
    • Research has indicated that transfer across contexts is especially difficult when a subject is taught only in a single context (e.g. the classroom or lab) rather than in multiple contexts (Bjork & Richardson-Klavhen, 1989)

These scaffolds are gradually removed or altered as the students progress toward attaining the desired goals. The concept of scaffolding was introduced by Bruner (1966) and based on Vygotsky's (1978) Zone of Proximal Development and Bloom's (1956) perspectives on knowledge acquistion.

Scaffolding can positively impact learning transfer, defined as the capability to both recognize and apply learning from one context to another (Byrnes, 1996). It is an active and dynamic process and is deliberately learned. "All new learning involves transfer. Previous knowledge can help or hinder the understanding of new information," (Bransford, Brown & Cocking, 2000, p.78). Therefore it is important that students experience learning in a variety of contexts and that authentic learning is prioritized. "Whilst apprehension of formalized knowledge is crucial to professional development, a mediator is necessary to demonstrate its relevance to practice," (Spouse, 1998, p. 259)

References and Resources

  • Bjork, R. & Richardson-Klavhen, A. (1989). On the puzzling relationship between environment context and human memory. In C. Izawa, (Ed.), Current issues in cognitive processes: The Tulane Flowerree Symposium on Cognition (pp. 313-344). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum
  • Bloom, B. S. (1956). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals. Handbook 1; Cognitive Domain. NY: David McKay Co. Inc
  • Bransford, J., Brown, A. & Cocking, R. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, & school. Washington DC: National Academy Press
  • Bruner, J. (1966). Studies in cognitive growth. NY: Wiley and Sons
  • Byrnes, J. (1996). Cognitive development & learning in instructional contexts. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon
  • Dawn, S., Dominguez, K, Troutman, W., Bond, R. and Cone, C. May 10, 2011). Instructional scaffolding to improve students’ skills in evaluating clinical literature. American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education, 74(4): 62
  • Fisher, D. and Frey, N. (2010). Scaffolds for learning: The key to guided instruction. In D. Fisher and N. Frey (eds.) Guided instruction: How to develop confident and successful learners. Alexandria, VA: ASCD
  • Instructional Scaffolding - University of Toronto, Scarborough
  • Scaffolding Learning - University of Wollongong
  • Spouse, J. (May, 1998). Scaffolding student learning in clinical practice. Nurse Education Today, 18(4), 259-266
  • Vygotsky, l. (1978). Mind in society: Development of higher psychological processes. Boston, MA: Harvard University

Last Published: Mar 12, 2021