A guide to ‘scaffolding’

Introduction and Background

Scaffolding is commonly referred to within educational vocabulary and research and so this article goes someway to define and contextualise this important concept.  It can be defined as an educational support system to give structure to a student’s learning journey. It originates from the work of Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximate Development (Vygotsky, 1978) where a learner is initially supported by a more experienced educator in order to eventually become more independent. The term was then harnessed by Bruner in the late 70s (Wood et al. 1978). The concept has become a common educational term but let us be clear about how we can contextualise the term, and what it means in practice.

Supportive scaffolding throughout the student journey at Bath

The framework for scaffolding is constructed from the moment the student has chosen to study at the University of Bath. The initial support involves the wider community including all those involved in open days, where students are given an insight into studying at university. Induction is also an important foundation to raise awareness of the transition to the HE environment at Bath. If we continue with the construction analogies, induction and the first few weeks are a crucial period in laying strong foundations to help manage the students’ expectations and build positive relationships with peers, teaching and support staff. This early scaffolding, laying down the building blocks on strong and clearly defined foundations, enables more independent construction to complete the build. Scaffolding is the thread that holds the students’ learning journey together, and this is reflected in course design. Tasks set for students in their first year are designed to equip students with the appropriate academic toolkit required for subsequent years. Scaffolding in this context can be seen to be the formative and summative assessment tasks together with the support offered through learning activities such as workshops and seminars.

Categories of scaffolding to support learning

An interesting publication reviews and defines various scaffolding approaches within Information and Communication Technology (ICT) engineering education (Melero et al. 2012). Their review defined different types of scaffolding as macro and micro-scaffolding. Macro-scaffolding denotes teacher defined workflow activities to support learning; whereas micro-scaffolding provides support to resolve detailed actions (this could be in the form of hints, or teaching assistants/ coach/ mediators). Where the support offered is led by individuals, the scaffolding was also defined as social-guidance scaffolding, in contrast to system-guidance scaffolding that were more environmental/technological e.g. through the use of learning management systems.

Scaffolding not Spoon-feeding

There is a distinct difference between spoon-feeding which would be telling a student what they need to do for assessment and how to meet the assessment criteria (Balloo et al. 2018). If the assessment is transparent with clear assessment criteria, students will gain assessment literacy to develop their own metacognition. Therefore, scaffolding in this context could be how the assessment is introduced and what formative opportunities are given to help shape and support the students learning.


So how can scaffolding be applied at Bath? As mentioned, I perceive the supportive foundations being laid at the outset of the student’s journey. At a course and unit level scaffolding is intrinsic in the pedagogic approaches within the curricula through course design and assessment strategies. Students are supported by the design of their Moodle environment, together with learning activities that encourage engagement, independence and team-based learning. Through this supported course-wide approach they gain graduate attributes that enable them to be proud ambassadors of the university.


Balloo K, Evans C, Hughes A, Zhu X, Winstone N. Transparency isn’t spoon-feeding: how a transformative approach to the use of explicit assessment criteria can support student self-regulation. Frontiers in Education . 2018 Sept 3;3:69. doi: 10.3389/feduc.2018.00069

Melero, Javier, Davinia Hernández Leo, and Josep Blat. (2012) A Review of Constructivist Learning Methods with Supporting Tooling in ICT Higher Education: Defining Different Types of Scaffolding. J. Univers. Comput. Sci. 18.16: 2334-2360.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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

Was this article helpful?