Scaffolding for online learners

Sunset urban scene with people walking under construction scaffolding on a city sidewalk, casting long shadows. Cars and buildings are visible in the background.

Missouri Online Recommends

Missouri Online recommends providing formative assessments (learning activities and assignments) that are sequenced and paced to allow students to assess their progress and for instructors to monitor student learning throughout the term, as well as providing formative assessments (learning activities and assignments) that are scaffolded to prepare students for successful completion of summative assessments.

See items #27 and 28 in the 5 Pillars Quality Review checklist.

Imagine a child learning how to ride a bike. As a toddler, the child starts riding a tricycle and then progresses to a bicycle with training wheels. After removing the training wheels, a trusted adult trots alongside the child, keeping a hand on the bike. Eventually, however, the adult lets go and the child pedals independently (although perhaps not without a fall or two.)

What is scaffolding?

This is a classic example of “scaffolding,” Jerome Bruner’s application of Lev Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development—the distance between what the learner can do without help and what they can do with support (Wood, Bruner & Ross, 1976). Scaffolding bridges that distance; the idea is to provide more structure and support in the beginning and gradually reduce that support as the learner progresses.

Quintana et al. (2004) describe scaffolding as “cognitive apprenticeship,” explaining it as an “approach in which students become increasingly accomplished problem-solvers given guidance from mentors through coaching, task structuring, and hints.”

What are the benefits of scaffolding?

Appropriate conceptual scaffolding supports student motivation and engagement with learning (Belland, Kim, & Hannafin, 2013; Wong et al., 2019; Lange et al., 2023). When learning tasks are too easy, students become bored; when the tasks are too difficult, they get frustrated (Lange et al., 2023).

Let’s say you are a home baker. Would you prefer to bake brownies from a mix, a cake recipe from the New York Times cooking section, or a multi-tiered confection recreating a scene from your favorite childhood novel? Which task is within your zone of proximal development?

The “cognitive apprenticeship” aspect of scaffolding (Quintana et al., 2004) can help build teaching presence, a component of the community of inquiry theoretical framework.

Benefits for online and neurodivergent students

Scaffolding helps students gain confidence in their learning, which is crucial in the online environment. In Small Teaching Online (2019), Flower Darby writes, “Many students are anxious about what they will experience in their online class. That may change over time, as students become more experienced with online learning. But for now, it’s helpful to build structures that reassure students that they are on track.” 

These structures are especially helpful for students who struggle with executive function, which is the ability to plan and follow through on tasks. Deficits in executive function are common among neurodivergent students, many of whom do not have a formal diagnosis but still benefit from inclusive design practices

However, even neurotypical students might have difficulty meeting deadlines when juggling work in your course against their other academic demands and personal commitments. In an online course, without the structure of in-seat attendance, students might be even more likely to procrastinate until a deadline is imminent. When an assignment is broken down into component parts, with due dates spaced throughout the semester, students stay on track of deadlines more easily. See start dates, deadlines, and staggered deadlines for guidance.

Scaffolding & integrity

Scaffolding can even help foster academic integrity:

  • When scaffolding is incorporated into low-stakes, formative feedback, students are better prepared for summative assessments. If your course includes a midterm exam and a final exam, students will approach these with more confidence if they have already encountered module quizzes that are structured similarly.
  • Moreover, when a lower percentage of the total available points in a class is contingent on one or two major exams or assignments, students are less incentivized to cheat on those major assessments. As Lang points out in Cheating Lessons (2013), infrequent, high-stakes assessments “produce high rates of cheating because they represent the only opportunity for students to earn their grade in the course. The more pressure you put on a single exam, the more likely that students will respond by using any means necessary to succeed on it.”
  • If students are provided with checkpoints for submission of larger assignments, they cannot put off the entire project until the last minute and be tempted to resort to dishonesty to meet the deadline.
  • Because they’ve been receiving feedback and (hopefully) revising accordingly, students can feel more confident in the work they’re submitting, which bolsters self-efficacy and reduces the temptation to cheat (Lang, 2013).
  • Finally, you’ll become familiar with their topics and their writing styles, so you’ll be aware of abrupt shifts that might signal dishonesty.

Does scaffolding reduce rigor?

Some critics argue that scaffolding is tantamount to “spoon feeding” students and removes rigor from the learning experience. Kristin Ritchey, Associate Professor of Psychological Science at Ball State University, counters in Faculty Focus (2019), “An important distinction between scaffolding and ‘spoon-feeding’ is that we are not doing the climbing for the students, but we are willing to climb beside the student, making each step of the climbing/learning explicit.”

Blackburn (2020) goes so far as to argue that scaffolding supports rigor in online learning: “It is essential that teachers design lessons that move students to more challenging work while simultaneously providing ongoing scaffolding to support students’ learning as they move to those higher levels.”

Examples & activities

Jumaa and Tasir (2014) identify four types of scaffolding that can occur in online learning:

  • Conceptual scaffolding helps students to decide what to consider in learning; for example, activating prior knowledge to help students connect it to new information.
  • Procedural scaffolding helps students use available tools and resources. 
  • Strategic scaffolding suggests approaches to problem-solving.
  • Metacognitive scaffolding guides students on what to think during learning. 

Let’s look at how you could incorporate these forms of scaffolding into your course design.

Metacognitive scaffolding

One aspect of what’s called the “hidden curriculum” is assuming that students know how to study effectively. Providing scaffolding for note-taking and studying supports students who struggle with those skills.

Students often have difficulty identifying the “important” details in a lecture or the assigned readings. Consider providing them with a graphic organizer or other tool and allow them to complete it to guide their note-taking. Introduce them to structured note-taking formats such as Cornell notes, or encourage them to try sketch notes or concept maps. 

You could set up a Google Doc and ask students to contribute notes to the document for each assigned lecture. Or, because students often have difficulty reading academic texts, you could use, an external tool that integrates with Canvas that allows students to collaboratively annotate a document. These annotations can include emojis, images, or multimedia; students can reply to each other’s annotations. See our webinar recording Collaborative Annotation of Digital Texts for Education for use cases. 

Either of these scaffolded approaches to note-taking could take the place of a discussion board. (This will not be sufficient to cover a student whose accommodation includes a note-taker, but it will provide extra benefits for that student.)

Procedural scaffolding

Scaffolding a major assignment often entails breaking it down into steps and then having students submit something at each step. A scaffolding plan for a web application might include these steps:

  • Project plan due by the third week of class, including an overview of the application’s functions and intended audience
  • Sketch and workflow submitted by the end of the fifth week
  • Wireframe done by midterm, along with a peer review
  • Application built by the end of the eleventh week
  • Two weeks spent on peer usability testing and debugging
  • Final submission at the end of the semester 

This plan would be introduced at the beginning of the semester, in the syllabus and/or in an overview page in the course Canvas site. 

Procedural scaffolding could also mean providing students with low-stakes practice opportunities before bigger assessments: 

  •  If your students take exams, make sure they encounter practice quizzes that are structured similarly.
  • If they are expected to complete a major presentation in VoiceThread at the end of the semester, you could ask them to create a shorter VoiceThread around the middle of the semester to present their topic and abstract.

If you can lower the anxiety and pressure around assessments, students can focus more on demonstrating what they know.

Conceptual scaffolding

Two key principles of the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework are activating or supplying background knowledge and highlighting patterns, critical features, big ideas, and relationships. The background information and the recognition of patterns can support students in making connections to the new information or skills being presented.  

A jigsaw discussion can be considered a scaffolded approach. The instructor begins by breaking the lesson into a set of discrete subtopics. Students first work in small groups to synthesize their understanding of an assigned subtopic. Then, they are moved into mixed groups and must present their subtopic to students from other groups. Demonstrated ability to “teach back” a skill or concept is strong evidence of learning. See the K. Patricia Cross Academy to learn how to implement a jigsaw discussion in-seat or online.

Problem-based learning (PBL) is a learning framework initially implemented within medical education but that can be used in almost any discipline. PBL presents students with an ill-structured problem or case and asks them to work collaboratively to solve it. Typically the instructor provides students with an issue or case, asks students to begin working on it, and gradually releases new information for the students to integrate into their process. Hmelo-Silver et al. (2007) cite Quintana et al. (2004) in referring to scaffolding as a form of “cognitive apprenticeship.” The University of Delaware’s Institute for Transforming University Education provides a PBL Problem Library.


Belland, B. R., Kim, C., & Hannafin, M. J. (2013). A Framework for Designing Scaffolds That Improve Motivation and Cognition. Educational Psychologist, 48(4), 243–270.

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Blackburn, B. (2020). Rigor in the Remote Learning Classroom: Instructional Tips and Strategies. Routledge.

CAST. (2018). Activate or supply background knowledge. Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.2.

CAST. (2018). Highlight patterns, critical features, big ideas, and relationships. Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.2.

Clark, K. F., & Graves, M. F. (2005). Scaffolding Students’ Comprehension of Text. The Reading Teacher, 58(6), 570–580.

Darby, F. (2019). Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science to Online Classes. Jossey-Bass.

Hmelo-Silver, C. E., Duncan, R. G., & Chinn, C. A. (2007). Scaffolding and Achievement in Problem-Based and Inquiry Learning: A Response to Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark (2006). Educational Psychologist, 42(2), 99–107.

Jumaat, N. F., & Tasir, Z. (2014). Instructional Scaffolding in Online Learning Environment: A Meta-analysis. 2014 International Conference on Teaching and Learning in Computing and Engineering, 74–77.

Kang, H., Thompson, J., & Windschitl, M. (2014). Creating Opportunities for Students to Show What They Know: The Role of Scaffolding in Assessment Tasks. Science Education, 98(4), 674–704.

Lang, J. (2013). Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty. Harvard University Press.

Lange, C., Costley, J., & Han, S. L. (2016). Informal cooperative learning in small groups: The effect of scaffolding on participation. Issues in Educational Research, 26(2), 260–279.

Lange, C., Gorbunova, A., Shmeleva, E., & Costley, J. (2023). The relationship between instructional scaffolding strategies and maintained situational interest. Interactive Learning Environments, 31(10), 6640–6651.

Molenaar, I., van Boxtel, C. A. M., & Sleegers, P. J. C. (2010). The effects of scaffolding metacognitive activities in small groups. Computers in Human Behavior, 26(6), 1727–1738.

Quintana, C., Reiser, B. J., Davis, E. A., Krajcik, J., Fretz, E., Duncan, R. G., Kyza, E., Edelson, D., & Soloway, E. (2004). A Scaffolding Design Framework for Software to Support Science Inquiry. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 13(3), 337–386.

Ritchey, K. (2019, November 18). Scaffolding: How the Chicken Who Crossed the Road Developed New Knowledge. Faculty Focus | Higher Ed Teaching & Learning.

Vasinda, S., & Pilgrim, J. (2023). Technology supports in the UDL framework: Removable scaffolds or permanent new literacies? Reading Research Quarterly, 58(1), 44–58.

West, A., Swanson, J., &  Lipscomb L. (2017). Ch. 11 Scaffolding. In P. Lipscomb (Ed.),  Instructional Methods, Strategies and Technologies to Meet the Needs of All Learners.

Wong, J., Baars, M., Davis, D., Van Der Zee, T., Houben, G.-J., & Paas, F. (2019). Supporting Self-Regulated Learning in Online Learning Environments and MOOCs: A Systematic Review. International Journal of Human–Computer Interaction, 35(4–5), 356–373.

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.

Zhu, X., Shui, H., & Chen, B. (2020). A Scaffolding Framework for Social Annotation in Online Classes.

Created on May 24, 2024