Scaffolding Online Student Success

scaffolding online learning

This article is featured in the resource guide, Effective Online Teaching Strategies.

Where did it all go wrong? Professor Elavor* just wrapped up what she hoped would be a successful semester of her new online course—Introduction to Natural Sciences. Unfortunately, the course ended with a giant thud.

For their final projects, students were asked to write an essay illustrating the connection between chemistry and biology and the impact of these sciences on industry and society.

Professor Elavor anticipated that this type of project would be accessible to students exploring the natural sciences at the college level, but she was startled by what she received. Many of her students chose poor concepts for their papers while some failed to execute reasonable ideas. Other papers were organized poorly and lacked necessary citations and connections to literature in the field.

How could Professor Elavor have avoided this problem? Where did it all go wrong, and what might she do differently next year?

What is Scaffolding?

Scaffolding is an instructional strategy to provide students with a framework that guides and supports their learning (Wood, Bruner, & Ross, 1976). Without reliable scaffolding, construction workers would be vulnerable to a number of safety hazards on site. In a similar way, students without scaffolding will have a difficult time navigating coursework and developing mastery. Successful scaffolding helps students accomplish assignments that might otherwise be outside of their abilities (Wood, Bruner, & Ross, 1976).

For instructors to successfully implement scaffolding, they must understand what their students’ current abilities are as well as the scaffolding strategies that will work best in the context of a particular assignment (Ambrose, Bridges, DiPietro, Lovett, & Norman, 2010). Strong scaffolding not only helps students complete course-specific assignments, but it teaches them valuable skills about completely work independently (Beed, Hawkins, & Roller, 1991). While scaffolding is meant to be helpful, it shouldn’t take the form of hand-holding or other techniques that might lead students to become overly reliant on step-by-step instructions.

The concept of scaffolding is influenced by Lev Vygotsky’s (1978) Zone of Proximal development theory. He conceptualizes three concentric circles that represent 1) things you can currently do, 2) things you can do with assistance from an expert or fellow learner, and 3) things beyond your capability. An important aspect of Zone of Proximal Development is the collaborative and social elements of learning (Dixon-Krauss, 1996).

Zone of Proximal development theory

Wood, Bruner, and Ross (1976) elaborated on Vygotsky’s work, describing scaffolding in the context of the zone of proximal development. When properly implemented, instructional scaffolding increases the size of the “I can do this with help” region in the diagram shown above. Ideally, the scaffolding is gradually removed as students’ abilities—the “I can do this” region—increase and improve.

Strategies for scaffolding

  • Breaking a complex task down into manageable sub-tasks. Require students to submit a series of paper drafts for instructor or peer review so students can build on constructive feedback.
  • Providing students with an example of what you would like to see. Give students an example of a strong paper and a weak paper, pointing out how the criteria was either met or missed.
  • Connecting students’ current knowledge with their prior knowledge. Be explicit with students about how new topics and tasks link to concepts previously introduced in the course or prior courses.
  • Helping students organize their thoughts before approaching a task. Supply students with reading questions or guides so they are equipped to tackle challenging material.

Why is Scaffolding Critical in Online Courses?

Weekly discussions are a core component of most online courses, but discussions aren’t always implemented in ways that contribute to student learning and progression through a course. Indeed, one of the things Professor Elavor noticed about her students work was the lack of depth to their discussion posts. In retrospect, that was probably a sign the students would struggle with the final project.

Instead of generic forums that ask students to share their “thoughts on the last chapter,” online discussions should be structured in ways that generate meaningful, sophisticated dialogue as well as student reflection (Land, Choi, & Ge, 2007). Scaffolding discussions can also promote student engagement and interactions in online courses (Cho & Cho, 2016).

Scaffolding relies on student-to-student and student-to-expert communications. Without thoughtful planning and preparation, both of these types of communications can be challenging to accomplish in online environments (Davis, 2006). Instructors’ consideration of the role of scaffolding in course design can improve any learning experience, but is particularly important in contexts, like online courses, that risk isolation (Ludwig-Hardman & Joanna C. Dunlap, 2003).

Strategies for scaffolding in an online course 

  • Using discussion forums as a foundation for future work. Align discussion questions and prompts with upcoming paper or presentation topics. Students can receive feedback on their ideas and build on them as part of a larger project.
  • Modeling the kind of participation you want to see. Give students an example of a strong discussion post and a weak response. Point out what criteria was either met or missed.
  • Asking students to engage in self-reflection. Require students to write a self-reflection on their learning and progress in the course after a midterm.
  • Creating opportunities for peer-to-peer learning and collaboration. Ask students to complete a group writing activity using Wikis or Google Docs.

How Might Professor Elavor have Implemented Scaffolding?

Because the entire class struggled with the final assignment, it suggests that Professor Elavor may have presented students with a task that required skills they hadn’t yet mastered. She might consider breaking the project into smaller tasks with regular feedback (i.e. asking for a topic proposal) and look for opportunities to align weekly discussions with the final project.

Ideally, Professor Elavor’s class discussions should serve as the foundation for higher-stakes assignments, such as the final project. Because the final project asks students to connect ideas in the reading material to something in their day-to-day life, Professor Elavor should create discussion prompts that ask students to exercise similar lines of thinking. For example: climate change is a timely and relevant topic in this subject area, yet few students explored climate change in their final papers. Asking students to identify a news article or read about the potential impact of climate change on their immediate geographic area could make for a fruitful weekly discussion topic, which in turn could activate student interest in the topic and inspire them to make it a focus of the final paper.

Scaffolding a particular assignment gives students the skills to not only tackle that work, but work in other classes as well. Scaffolding is a powerful way to teach students to manage their time, take advantage of prior knowledge, and consider the bigger picture.


Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works. San Francisco, CA: Josey-Bass.

Beed, P. L., Hawkins, E. M., & Roller, C. M. (1991). Moving learners toward independence: The power of scaffolded instruction. The Reading Teacher, 44(9), 648-655. Retrieved from

Cho, M. H., & Cho, Y. (2016). Online instructors’ use of scaffolding strategies to promote interactions: A scale development study. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 17(6), 108-120.

Davis, M. T. (2006). Using procedural scaffolding to support online learning experiences. Paper presented at IEEE International Professional Communication Conference, Saratoga Springs, NY.

Dixon-Krauss, L. (1996). Vygotsky in the classroom: Mediated literacy instruction and assessment. White Plains, NY: Longman Publishers.

Ludwig-Hardman, S., & Dunlap, J. C. (2003). Learner support services for online students: Scaffolding for success. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 4(1), 1-15.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wood, D., Bruner, J. S., & Ross, G. (1976). The role of tutoring in problem solving. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 17(2), 89-100.

 Cassandra Sardo is an Instructional Technologist in the Office of Digital Learning at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.  Anthony Sindelar is an Instructional Designer at the MGH Institute of Health Professions.

 *Professor Elavor is a fictional character.