Resource created by M. Martin (2020) 

Any number of specific pedagogical strategies, large and small, can fall under the umbrella of scaffolding. All function within a larger framework requiring that instructors: (1) understand their students’ current abilities, (2) commit to regularly communicating and interacting with their students (this involves reciprocal feedback), and (3) structure activities, lessons, and assignments so that students are given the greatest support when they are beginning a novel task and increasing independence as they become more proficient.


Examples of commonly-used scaffolding strategies:

There is a rich scientific literature on instructional scaffolding, both in person and online. Dig into the scholarly work in the references included with this page. Here are a few examples of useful strategies to get you started:

 Essential Steps for Building a Course Scaffold

#1 Break complex assignments down into their component skills


First, think about what it is you want students to do and then think about all of the steps that go into doing this well. For example, in order to write a research paper, students need to be able to:

Think carefully about whether your students (all of your students) have mastered these component skills before giving them a high-stakes summative assessment requiring a higher-level skill. Adopting scaffolding would likely involve creating multiple, smaller and more focused assignments that allow students to master these sub-tasks before moving on to the more complex integrative task. For example, you have assignment #1 be about formulating a research question, assignment 2 about finding a research article…etc.


Hint: Even finding where on your Blackboard page you’ve posted an assignment might be a component skill. Don’t assume that your students all have the digital fluency to navigate this! Outlining these steps clearly in your instructions or showing students how to do this can go a long way.


#2 Focus students’ cognitive effort on the specific skills you want them to practice


Set up your assignments, activities, and readings so that students spend their energy on exactly what you want them to be able to do and nothing else. If you want them to be able to read and summarize a research article, then maybe don’t make them also have to find an appropriate article. Give them a list of articles to choose from instead. If you want your students to be able to apply a course concept to real life, then maybe don’t grade them on their ability to write in a fully formal, professional style. Designing your course assignments to build on one another helps a lot with this, because earlier activities and assignments can help ensure you that your students have the component skills to then apply in future assignments.


Hint: Guided notes can be a great strategy for this. In your instructions for the assignment, you may add notes or hints for students about where to find relevant information for each step. 


#3 Provide direct instruction in process as well as content or outcome


Another important aspect of scaffolding involves providing direct instruction in and modelling of the process of learning and practicing a new skill. As experts in our areas, we may complete a number of tasks with little thought as to the way we go about it – yet this procedural knowledge is essential for novice learners. There are many ways to make the process of learning explicit. Here are a few examples you might consider:

All of these practices should be complemented by regular feedback and efforts to foster a safe and supportive classroom environment (e.g., don’t assign practice tasks a high-stakes grade).


Hint: Beginning a class by having students write about their goals for the course, challenges they anticipate, and strategies they might use for pushing through those challenges can be a great way to help students become more aware and take ownership of their learning process right at the outset.


#4 Give repeated opportunities for feedback and revision


Reciprocal dialogue between instructor and student (and/or between students) is an essential component of scaffolding. The value of this dialogue is supported by research. One of the most consistent instructor-driven factors promoting student engagement and achievement in online learning is regular communication with the instructor (Martin & Bolliger, 2018; Martin, Wang, & Sadaf, 2018; Young, 2006). Feedback doesn’t have to be long or in-depth to be impactful, but it should be prompt and actionable (i.e., something that student can respond to). Through the use of hints/clues, asking pointed questions, making suggestions, and identifying missteps, the instructor can encourage students to think in new ways, beyond what they might have thought of without prompting. It may take several rounds of feedback and revision before students are able to master a particular task, so be sure to work this time into your course schedule.   


Hint: Use a “feedback bank” – or a collection of common comments you provide on students’ work and copy-and-paste them (with adjustments as needed) in order to cut-down on the time it takes to give feedback.



Martin, F., & Bolliger, D. U. (2018). Engagement matters: Student perceptions on the importance of engagement strategies in the online learning environment. Online Learning, 22, 205-222.

Martin, F., Wang, C., & Sadaf, A. (2018). Student perception of helpfulness of facilitation strategies that enhance instructor presence, connectedness, engagement and learning in online courses. The Internet and Higher Education, 37, 52-65.

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

Young, S. (2006). Student views of effective online teaching in higher education. The American Journal of Distance Education, 20, 65-77.



Additional Resources:


Rovai, A. P. (2007). Facilitating online discussions effectively. The Internet and Higher Education, 10(1), 77-88. DOI: 10.1016/j.iheduc.2006.10.001

 Schutt, M. (2003). Scaffolding for online learning environments: Instructional design strategies that provide online learner support. Educational Technology, 43, 28-35.

 Dabbagh, N. (2003). Scaffolding: An important teacher competency in online learning. TechTrends, 47, 39-44.

McLoughlin, C. (2001). Inclusivity and alignment: Principles of pedagogy, task and assessment design for effective cross‐cultural online learning. Distance Education, 22, 7-29.


Other websites with information about scaffolding online learning in higher ed: