What is scaffolding?

Posted by Greten on 09 May 2020 under Terms, Theories

In educational context, including elearning, scaffolding refers to the strategies to guide the learners from their current level of understanding to the next level. In elearning, this is typically accomplished by providing learners with hints, guides, prompts, or links to specific parts of the lesson that gradually become unavailable as the learner move to more practices or exercises.

The term "scaffolding" came from the field of construction. It refers to the framework mostly made of metal and wood that construction workers use to stand and climb as they construct the building. As the building is nearing its completion, they gradually remove the scaffolding until the building is complete.

Zone of proximal development

A child studing on a laptop, with an adult watching on his back. On their background are three concentric circles: the smallest and innermost is labeled know / can do, the middle circle is labeled know / can do with guidance, and the outermost circle is doesn't know / can't do. The innermost circle surrounds the child's head. The adult is outside the innermost circle but falls in front of the middle circle.The scaffolding teaching technique emerged from the influence of the zone of proximal development theory by psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934). According to the zone of proximal development theory, the knowledge and skills that a learner needs to acquire from a lesson or a course may fall into three categories:

  1. Know / Can do: knowledge that the learner knows and understand or skills that the learners can do.
  2. With guidance: knowledge that the learner can understand or skills that the learners can do if guided by another person
  3. Doesn't know /Can't do: knowledge that the learner does not know and understand or skills that they cannot learn at the moment.

You can visualize these categories as concentric circles with the Know / Can do at the center, and the Doesn't know / Can't do being the outermost circle. Using scaffolding, the knowledge and skills of the learner can expand through the middle circle. The middle circle, in turn, will expand a little through the outermost circle. As the lesson or course progress, the Know / Can do zone expands until it fills-up the outer circle.

In the traditional classroom setting, the person who can guide the learner through the middle zone is usually the teacher or a peer who already demonstrated greater understanding or skill. However, in asynchronous elearning, elements in the user interface that can provide hints, guides, or clues are sufficient.

Scaffolding in an elearning lesson

Scaffolding is easy to implement in a usual HTML5 slide- or video-based elearning module. In a practice exercise or quiz slide, you can provide a simple link or button that will open a popup or a new tab that offers a hint on how to answer the question or solve the problem. Consider the following physics problem.

A slide with an exercise problem: A man pushes a 50 kg crate across the floor of the warehouse, causing it to move at 0.75 m/s/s. Assuming that the friction with the floor is negligible, what is the magnitude of the force exerted by the crate on the man? The picture is that of a man pushing a crate. There is a hint button at the upper-right corner.

You can divide the learner's mastery of the lesson into three stages. Level 1 is when the learner just finished the basic concepts of, in this example, Newton's laws of motion. Level 2 is after the module shows more sample problems. Level 3 exercise problems may come at the end of the lesson before the grades quiz, or even days after the end of the lesson to serve as reinforcement. Now, the hints may display something like this:

  • Level 1 hint popup: Use the second and the third law of motions. The second law, also called the law of acceleration, is F = ma. The third law, which is the law of interaction, states that force always comes in pair; two forces of equal magnitude and opposite directions exerted by two objects on each other.
  • Level 2 hint popup: Use the laws of acceleration and interaction to solve this problem.
  • Level 3 hint popup will never open because the Hint button is not available.

Another point of scaffolding is that the learners can ignore it if they feel confident that they know the answer to the question or how to approach the problem. Just like the classroom learners can decide not to ask questions from the teacher or their peers, they can also choose not to click the hint button.

Certain kinds of elearning might need to have specialized forms of scaffolding discussed in the following subsections.

Scaffolding in a virtual instructor-led training

The scaffolding in a virtual instructor-led training (VILT) is more similar to that of classroom learning than asynchronous elearning. The online teacher provides a lecture, explains key concepts, and answers questions and clarifications from the learner.

When the question exercises come, the instructor can guide the learner. This method can feel different if the learner needs to write something on paper, and the instructor needs to see what is written, such as solving and answering math problems. The learner may put it in front of the webcam (might not be feasible if the webcam is of low quality) or take a picture of it or scan it and send it to the instructor to ask for guidance. This method of scaffolding is slower than in a traditional classroom, but this is not going to be an issue at the latter part of the learning process since the point of scaffolding is that it should be removed gradually as the learner climbs up the levels of mastery.

Scaffolding in content gamified elearning

There are two kinds of gamified elearning: structural gamification and content gamification. The structural gamification is merely the addition of gaming elements to what is otherwise a traditional slide or video-based elearning, so scaffolding it will be similar to that of elearning lessons in the main section above. In content gamification, the scaffolding element should make sense within the learning environment.

For example, a gamified elearning puts the learner in the role of a warrior or adventurer in a fantasy adventure. They learn as they travel the world, and the quizzes come in the forms of puzzles to be solved or enemies to be defeated. Placing a HINT button somewhere in the user interface may not make sense. A more suitable scaffolding can be in the form of a mentor character who guides the learners in their adventure, who disappears at that moment when you already obtained sufficient mastery. You can also be more creative for the reason why the mentor suddenly went away, for example, kidnapped by the bad guys.

Scaffolding in microlearning

Scaffolding in microlearning can be tricky because the lessons are usually too short for the learning to transition from With guidance to Know / Can do.

You can treat microlearning as a regular elearning; there is a Hint button or something similar to it that the learners can use to see hints or clues. However, you need to decide when the Hint button is going to disappear. You can look at a group of microlearning modules as a series that forms a long lesson, with the Hint button no longer available in the latter microlearning modules.

Another interesting option is to use the microlearning as the scaffolding for longer regular elearning lessons. When a learner clicks the Hint button, or asks a character mentor, a microlearning module will open, showing the part of the lesson that you need to answer the exercise.


The scope of what the learners can learn in a course can be divided into three zones: know or can do, know or can do with guidance, and don't know or can't do. Scaffolding is a teaching method that aims to transition the learner from the zone of know or can do with guidance, to that of without any guidance.

Similar to the scaffolding in transition, scaffolding in learning must be removed at the latter parts of the learning process. The learners should also have the option of whether to use the scaffolding or not. Scaffolding is usually guidance from a teacher or a peer. However, in asynchronous elearning, an interactive user interface element that can open a prompt, hint, or clues are among the standard approaches.


Last updated on 25 May 2020.

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