February 17, 2021


Eva Sclippa, First Year Engagement Librarian at UNC Wilmington

Photo by Igor Starkov from Pexels

As a teaching librarian, I’m fortunate that the library’s Coordinator of Instructional Services organizes regular discussions about pedagogy and instructional design in our division’s weekly meetings.
Our theme for this semester has been scaffolding in instructional design, and the blog team felt it might be beneficial to share an overview of scaffolding with the SIG.

What is scaffolding?

Scaffolding is what it sounds like: building support structures for your students to guide them through mastering a new concept, often by breaking that concept into smaller pieces and then withdrawing pieces of the scaffold as they become more confident with the material. In scaffolded learning, instructors begin by providing their students with significant guidance, then ask students to approach progressive steps more and more independently.

Scaffolding targets the “zone of proximal development” as described by Lev Vygotsky–the space where students are approaching a concept that is just outside the reach of their current abilities or knowledge. Students are likely to learn more effectively in this zone because they are neither bored by remaining too safely in the content they already know, nor lost or frustrated by being left to flounder in the unknown without support.

What are some ways to use scaffolding?

One of the things I really enjoy about scaffolding is the way it intersects with problem-based learning. As someone who incorporates a lot of gamified elements into her instruction and who has done a lot with things like escape rooms and breakouts, I already value challenging students by asking them to use the skills we’ve encountered together to solve a problem, or directly apply them to something like what they’ll be working on in their course. Scaffolding just asks that you be more mindful of ensuring your students have enough familiarity with the content to solve the puzzle or problem, and that you thoughtfully plan a course in which they are working with less and less of your guidance.

Once I was thinking and learning about scaffolding, I started seeing places it was already built into my instruction, and places I could further develop it.

For instance, I recently taught a synchronous virtual session for a Roman Art class in which students are being required to write a paper that identifies three significant themes from the Res Gestae of Augustus and then connects them to works of art from the period. In my session with them, we walked through starting a concept map of the Res Gestae and Augustan art together with Lucidchart, beginning with simply identifying themes from the Res Gestae and categories of related information.

I then walked them through several steps of finding more information and adding it into their concept map: first finding background information in Oxford Art Online and the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art, then searching for secondary sources, and finally, finding relevant objects and images in Artstor.

A concept map of ideas about Augustan Art and the Res Gestae.
The chaotic energy of creating a concept map live with 15 other people.

Once they had collectively created a map of the concepts, themes, and ideas they wanted to explore in their paper, I had them work in small groups in class to find two images in Artstor on a shared theme and present those to the rest of the class. Finally, they’ve been assigned to create their own concept map on the themes, objects, and supporting evidence they’d like to explore in their own work. This concept map, in turn, will serve as a sort of rough draft visual outline of their paper, providing their professor a chance to give them feedback on an early stage of the research process, further removing parts of the scaffold as they progress onto writing the paper itself.

Further Reading and Resources

Clearly this was a very brief introduction to the very complex topic of scaffolding, but fortunately there are lots of great readings and resources for those who want to learn more! These were a few of the ones we’ve been discussing in my division meetings, and I hope they’re helpful to you, too:

Video:  Instructional Design – Scaffolding, CIRT Lab 

Instructional Scaffolding: A Definitive Guide. (March 20, 2013). 

Best Practices: Instructional Scaffolding from Ryerson University 

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