Scaffolding Learning for Novices, Amateurs, and Experts

From E-Learning Faculty Modules


Module Summary

Scaffolding is a teaching and learning strategy that strengthens the transferability of digital learning objects, courses, trainings, and degree programs. "Scaffolding" refers to temporary learning structures that enhance learners’ adaptability to a particular learning situation. This may be done by adjusting the learning to make it easier or more difficult, such as through problematizing concepts (Reiser, 2002), and by providing relevant resources at the respective learners’ times of need. (In online systems, such cognitive scaffolding is provided when certain learner behaviors are observed which might indicate certain emotional states--like frustration or confusion.) Scaffolding strives to address frustration control—through supports, partial solutions, helpful directions, and supported learning (even for learners who need more complicated and challenging assignments).

At its most basic, scaffolding is designed to address the needs of outlier learners in a particular learning domain—novices (those who are new to a field but who aim for expertise one day) and amateurs (those who only plan to “dabble” in a field and never truly attain mastery) at one end, and expert learners at the other. Many degree programs attract both very new learners and those who’ve worked in a field for a long time but are back in higher education to get credentialed for their particular aims.

This module focuses on what scaffolding is and provides an overview of various scaffolding strategies based on the educational research.


Learners will...

  • Review what scaffolding is in e-learning
  • Explore the theoretical underpinnings for scaffolding
  • Describe the various types of scaffolding used today in e-learning
  • Consider what types of scaffolding may apply to particular learning situations
  • Apply different analyses to scaffolding to see when particular scaffolds may be best applied

Module Pretest

1. What is scaffolding as an approach to e-learning?

2. What educational theories undergird the practice of scaffolding?

3. What types of scaffolds are used today in e-learning?

4. When may particular scaffolds be applicable to particular learning situations?

5. What are some standards for evaluating the effectiveness of e-learning scaffolds?

Main Contents

The following slideshow highlights some basic information about scaffolding.

1. Scaffolding in E-Learning

Scaffolding manifests in many different ways. It involves the creation of technological structures that enable particular work. This may involve the course environmental design (Grady, 2006); it may involve the sequencing of the learning. For example, a technological scaffold may connect a learning / course management system to digital contents. Some instructors apply mobile learning (through laptops and personal digital assistants) in an automotive service and repair course at a vocational high school to encourage independent study and more effective troubleshooting (Lin, Chen, & Chen, 2008). Scaffolding may be applied to a particularly difficult learning concept (Ginat, 2009), within a larger curriculum.

What is Scaffolding?

Scaffolding at its core level is a so-called “fadeable support” that enables learners to achieve a particular understandings and skill sets before the scaffolding is removed and the learners proceed with more advanced learning on their own (or with the help of other scaffolds). Grady defines scaffolding as the “instructional devices that enable students to complete tasks they would be unable to master without assistance” (2006, p. 148). Scaffolds are often used in the critical early stages of learning but may be applied to continuing learning as well. Scaffolding may be a required and integral part of the learning, or it may be purely opt-in by the learner.

2. Some Theoretical Underpinnings of Scaffolding

“Scaffolding” was originally attributed to Lev Vygotsky in his theory of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), defined as the space between what a learner may learn alone vs. how much more he / she may achieve with the work of a more expert learner. Other works suggest that this term may have originated from the 1930s (Mayer, Burschka, Knoll, Braun, Lange, & Bauernschmitt, 2008, p. 2866).

What May be Scaffolded?

Various aspects of online learning may be scaffolded. There may be scaffolds that consist of information structures to help learners frame and conceptualize information and relationships between data.

Some scaffolds enhance the handling of complexity (and clutter) through encapsulating or hiding complexity (for example, software that analyzes quantitative and qualitative data).

Some difficult types of analysis and decision-making benefit from scaffolding processes. The research literature includes descriptions of scaffolding for causal diagnostic reasoning “in making initial diagnoses, determining etiology, and making differential diagnoses” in a particular area of medical care (Jonassen, 1996, p. 439). The sophistication applied at critical decision-making junctures may be enhanced by structured attention to the nuances of the assessment.

Scaffolds may enhance the steps taken to problem-solve about both well structured and ill-structured (open-ended) problems. For example, particular domain fields may have preferential inquiry and research processes that may be communicated through a scaffold for authentic learning (Hung & Chen, 2005, p. 227).

Inquiry itself provides complex challenges:

“Online inquiry involves a set of interrelated activities, such as planning an investigation; seeking, analyzing, and making sense of online information; and synthesizing information into a final argument,” write Quintana and Zhang (The Digital IdeaKeeper, 2004, p. 388).

One example of a scaffold delineates work in a number of steps—to surface new knowledge:

  • “Planning: Articulating a driving question along with a description of what information might be needed to address the question (e.g., setting up information goals).
  • Information Seeking: Gathering information related to the information goals, either by using some search engine or by utilizing information gathered elsewhere (e.g., data gathered from a probe).
  • Information Analysis: Analyzing, reading, commenting on, and making sense of the information gathered.
  • Information Synthesis: Comparing and putting together different pieces of information taken from different sources to write a scientific argument” (Quintana & Zhang, IdeaKeeper Notepads…, 2004, p. 1329).

Scaffolds may establish particular effective procedures (Davis, 2006). Scaffolds may raise learner motivations for learning. Some scaffolds define e-learner paths through a curriculum; for example, these may be offered as a part of branched learning.

Scaffolds are often used for complex, multi-stage, and creative learning. Complex learning involves more deep transfer learning. This involves the application of a wide range of knowledge and skills to achieve the project—which consists of over-arching goals as well as subgoals (Hmelo & Guzdial, 1996). Those tasks that require a variety of skill sets and involve multiple concurrent-time endeavors may benefit from a set of predesigned structure (albeit with freedom within that structure). One example of a complex task may be a real world project management task, with the mix of analysis, documentation, risk management, planning, human coordination, design work, and other elements.

While scaffolds are used in formal learning environments, like university classrooms, they are also used for informal ones—such as museums where mobile technologies are used for short episodes of educational content (Lyons, 2007). Another example of informal scaffolding involves the uses of interactive kiosks and digital installations in public spaces to guide experiences.

Some types of scaffolds coach students along in their learning. Others provide tutoring. Some provide relevant information and mental models, such as visualizations of systems. Some systems help learners create mental models about complex systems and working science-based rules (Law, 2002). Others elicit articulation from learners to encourage reflection. Scaffolds may encourage learners to “explore substantive driving questions in different areas” (Quintana & Zhang, IdeaKeeper Notepads…, 2004, p. 1329). In other words, there are different levels of scaffolding based on the different types of learning needs. Some scaffolding may exist in complementary ways with other scaffolds, with multiple scaffolds in a learning situation (Puntambekar, 1999, n.p.).

So-called “black-box scaffolding” has been defined as one that “facilitates student performance (more than learning), but which may not fade during use of the environment”; it simplifies the students’ learning process (usually because learning that particular portion is not important to the overall learning) but black-box scaffolding does not increase the student’s understanding of the process (Hmelo & Guzdial, 1996, p. 130). By contrast, so-called “glass-box scaffolding” facilitates performance and is expected to fade from use of the environment over time. These may include prompts for learner self-explanations; performance supports; collaborative environments; intelligent agents and bots (as “guides and coaches”), and informational representations (Hmelo & Guzdial, 1996, pp. 130 - 131).

3. Scaffolding for Novices and Amateurs

Some online courses begin with so-called Week 0s and Pre-Weeks, which are open sessions for new learners to acclimate to the online learning environments.

Samples of stored prior students’ works and tutors’ comments (with student permissions) (Chalk, 2001) may be offered to set learner expectations.

Uniquely novice- and amateur-based types of scaffolding include opt-in extras like tables of new words and definitions, or flashcard practices for terminology. Explicit descriptions of certain assumed / implicit principles, theories, and values, in a given field also help scaffold the learning. Other scaffolds may be simulations and repeatable opportunities to practice a particular skill (like simulated 10-key experiences online).

Reflection aids for online learners may enable them to capture their own ideas (in words, in drawings, in numbers, in concept maps, and in a variety of other means) during the learning—whether it’s during the use of a digital laboratory or a library.

4. A Review of the Types of Scaffolding Today

  • E-learning scaffolds exist to enable the learnability of technology systems.
  • They may scaffold information relationships and structures. They may convey mental models.
  • They may structure inquiry and research processes within a particular learning domain.
  • They may enable the development of original observations learned from various online learning experiences—by encouraging learner reflections.
  • They may help learners move through critical steps of a creative design process (Robertson & Nicholson, 2007, p. 37).
  • They may define various in-field standards in a step-by-step way for analysis, decision-making, planning, and compliance.
  • Scaffolds may help learners self-regulate their own learning, such as self-evaluating and monitoring; goal setting and strategic planning; strategy implementation and monitoring, and strategic outcome monitoring (Shih, Chang, Chen, & Wang, 2005, p. 31).
  • Scaffolds may help learners maintain a high sense of motivation. Some of these strategies include the use of autotelic principles of intrinsic motivations (Steels & Wellens, 2007, p. 328).
  • E-learning environments may be designed to situate learners in a particular context that simulates a real-world learning context, to mitigate for learner senses of isolation, and to develop personalization in learning environments (Davis, 2006).
  • Human facilitation and mentorship often involve a high level of scaffolding.

5. Analyzing the Effectiveness of Particular Scaffolding in Particular E-Learning Contexts

Each e-learning context generally will involve nuances and unique needs. This also means that there may be differing standards for what effective scaffolding involves. One factor must clearly involve learner centeredness criteria (Quintana, Krajcik, & Soloway, 2002, p. 81) because these scaffolds have to work for the learners in the particular context. Scaffolds should address some learner need such as a cognitive obstacle; offer conceptual strategies to progressing with a complex strategy; and physically structuring the learning and work (Quintana, Krajcik, & Soloway, 2002, p. 82). The actual design of a scaffold begins with an analysis of the desired work practice and a gaps analysis about where learners may be falling short, in some cases. One method for evaluating the effectiveness of scaffolds then involves how learners interact with them and draw learning value from them.

Historical standards of evaluating standards involve the following elements:

  • “Accessibility: Can learners access a scaffold?
  • Use: Can learners use an accessible scaffold?
  • Efficiency: How easily can learners use a scaffold to perform the supported task?
  • Accuracy: Do learners perform a supported task correctly and appropriately using a scaffold?
  • Progression: Do learners use a scaffold to do their task in a linear (i.e., novice-like) or more non-linear (i.e., expert-like manner?
  • Reflectiveness: Do learners spend time reflecting on a supported task?” (Quintana, Krajcik, & Soloway, 2002, p. 84)

For structural scaffolding, there may be another set of guidelines, which involve visibility, essentialness, coupling, usability, and representation:

Structural Characteristics: Guidelines from Symphony Study

Visibility: Scaffolds should be very visible because learners will not usually trigger scaffolds.

Essentialness: More scaffolds should be essential than optional, which learners tend to bypass.

Coupling: Scaffolds appearing together should be tightly coupled to focus learner attention. Multiple, loosely coupled scaffolds should be made more essential, so learners will use them.

Usability: Scaffolds need to be usable, but they should not make work task too automatic, or learners will not mindfully perform the underlying task.

Representation: Neither textual nor graphical scaffolds are inherently better or worse. (Quintana, Krajcik, & Soloway, 2002, p. 85)

One way to evaluate the effectiveness of scaffolding is to test the scaffolding situation and the application of the scaffolds through think-aloud, pre-test and post-test data (Moos & Azevedo, 2006).

Technology-Mediated Scaffolding

In a simple way, scaffolding enhances the learnability of new technologies. They involve context-sensitive help to show how a particular tool should be used. Well designed technology scaffolds enhance the “gulf of execution” and the “gulf of evaluation,” which are defined as “the difficulty of acting upon the environment” and the latter as “the difficulty of assessing the state of the environment (Norman, 1991, p. 23, as cited in Sedig, Klawe, & Westrom, 2001, p. 35).

Information technologies enable a rich variety of technology-mediated scaffolding. Automated intelligent agents or robots may serve as virtual tutors or coaches; they may be virtual peers to help learners stay motivated throughout the learning (Kim, Hamilton, Zheng, & Baylor, 2006). Research has gone into how to design bots to be more polite and to align with human expectations of robot interactions. Automated tutors have been designed to have greater sensitivity to not only provide informational and learning supports but also affective learning ones (Aist, Kort, Reilly, Mostow, & Picard, 2002).

Socio-technical spaces bring people together to share information and to collaborate. In computer supported collaborative learning (CSCL) spaces, scaffolding enhances collaboration and the sharing of individual and group knowledge (Weinberger, Fisher, & Mandl, 2002). Human coalitions may be scaffolded in shared virtual work spaces to create senses of community and teaming. In live webinars and web conferences, people may interact around similar interests; in asynchronous shared spaces, people may also interact around differing groups and transient shared interests.

The uses of information delivery through SMS text messaging may serve as a kind of mobile scaffolding (Stone, 2004).


Check out the Help files for Axio Learning / K-State Online. These are one kind of scaffolding to assist new users of the learning / course management software.

How To

Applying Scaffolding to Particular Learning Situations

One researcher provides a list of guidelines for how to build scaffolding to a particular learning situation. Ginat (2009) offers the following steps:

  • “Begin with what students can do.
  • Establish a shared goal.
  • Actively identify student difficulties and needs.
  • Provide tailored assistance.
  • Aim for reduced frustration during the activity process.
  • Provide encouraging feedback.
  • Maintain pursuit of the goal, while offering tips and support.
  • Reflect on the activity process, while illuminating points of difficulty, and elaborating on the key aspects that led to success.
  • Aim at internalization, and generalization of the elaborated aspects, in order to develop independence” (p. 111).

Possible Pitfalls

E-learning course and learning object designers need to integrate scaffolding without allowing these elements to be distracting.

Awareness of Modes

Cross-modal scaffolding strategies may not apply. In other words, the scaffolding used in learning / course management system (L/CMS)-based learning may be very different than for mobile learning, augmented reality learning, blended learning, and augmented virtuality.

There are a range of scaffolding types—through technology, digital environmental design, human facilitation, and learner interactions. It is important to decide the core strategies and to test the effectiveness of these endeavors first. The learning context and learner needs will determine what is most effective.

Unintended Learning Effects and Consequences

Some scaffolding interventions may not have had the intended learning effects that the instructors may have planned. In one case, computer science instructors introduced scaffolding on object (instance) diagrams to freshman programming students in the hopes that they would better understand the code and draw their own diagrams later on but found no fundamental difference (Thomas, Ratcliffe, & Thomasson, 2004). The researchers observe the challenges of student resistance to some learning techniques.

Another risk may involve unintended consequences of scaffolding. Sometimes, the hiding of complexity (through “embedding” or “encapsulation”) may hinder the work. “Tools whose scaffolds and structures fail to support and/or mediate collaborative interactions and exchanges become “unhelpful helpers”. Unhelpful helpers stifle, hinder, and sometimes inhibit the collaborative interactions they were designed to support,” observe Thomas and Kreeger (2008, p. 2583).

Module Post-Test

1. What kinds of scaffolding do you currently use in the particular e-learning course or training or learning object?

2. What are some effective ways you can use to test the effectiveness of your scaffolds?

3. What informal feedback have you received about your scaffolds?

4. What sorts of authoring tools are you considering using to create automated scaffolding?

5. What sorts of strategies are you going to use for human scaffolding? (Why is human scaffolding one of the most flexible types of scaffolding for e-learning?)


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Extra Resources

“Scaffolding: An Important Teacher Competency in Online Learning.” (Dr. Nada Dabbagh), TechTrends, 2007, Springer Boston.

“Scaffolding Discovery Learning Spaces.” Dr. Shalin Hai-Jew. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching (JOLT of MERLOT), 2009.