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Achieving excellence in teaching through scaffolding learner competence

Catherine McLoughlin
Australian Catholic University, National

How do teachers best support learning and ensure that students become self directed learners? Traditionally, the most common form of supported learning has been an apprenticeship, where a novice learns through active participation in a task, initially only peripherally and then assuming more control and ownership. Originating in socio-cultural theory and developed by later theorists, the concept of scaffolding has been extended by practical applications and research in technology based environments. As the World Wide Web becomes increasingly integrated into the delivery of learning experiences at tertiary levels, the concept of scaffolding needs to be redefined because it is not readily translated into contexts where the teacher is not present, as in online environments. The aim of this paper is to provide practical dimensions and examples how scaffolding can be implemented, to provide examples of how learners can be supported in the processes of constructivist inquiry, and to a categorisation of learning supports that tertiary educators can apply across a range of instructional settings.


There is now a convincing body of evidence that effective learning needs to be supported in various ways though pedagogy, teacher intervention and the design of learning environments. The literature on good teaching in higher education is characterised by a range of frameworks and principles to guide teachers in higher education (Laurillard, 2002; Biggs, 1999). For Biggs (1999) the most effective means of supporting student learning is through designing a range of teaching-learning activities, including activities that are initiated by students themselves. Other perspectives on learning argue for learning environments that provide opportunities for problem solving and authentic learning in other than traditional face to face settings (Herrington & Oliver, 2002). For example, resource based learning is an approach associated with inquiry and project based learning, where students learn through structured interaction with tasks and learning resources. To succeed in such environments, (often Web based) students need to have a repertoire of learning strategies, and self regulatory skills in order to negotiate new conceptual knowledge. There are several possible lines of research that may advance of our understanding of student learning in resources based environments: a) studies that examine the types of cognitive engagement in complex learning environments and b) the types of support that students need to become effective independent learners. This papers looks in greater depth at the second question ie the types of support needed by students, and at the types of social and cognitive scaffolds that can be offered by teachers to achieve excellent learning outcomes.

Why do we need learning supports?

Scaffolding, or learning support is a term with an interesting history. Wood, Bruner & Ross (1976) originally coined the term scaffolding as a metaphor to describe the effective intervention by a peer, adult or competent person in the learning of another person. The term can be traced to Vygotsky's (1978) concept of "the zone of proximal development", that is the actual developmental level of the learner compared with the level of potential development that can occur with guidance or collaboration with a more competent person. The appeal of the concept lies in the fact that it directs attention to the need for support in the learning process, and does so in a way that emphasises that excellence in teaching is necessarily responsive to the state of understanding achieved by particular learners. In environments mediated by technology, a human tutor, peer students or intelligent agents can provide scaffolding so that learners attain new skills, concepts and knowledge.

Research on scaffolding has had profound and far reaching influences on how current practitioners design learning environments (eg., Jarvela, 1995; Roschelle & Teasley, 1995). Cognitive change can occur through processes of social interaction in which ideas are articulated, shared, revised, modified and adopted because of their relevance to the task or context (Rosenshine & Meister, 1992). Learners progress through developmental changes by attempting successive approximations of the learning task, assisted by peers, more able others or by a tutor. Support offered in the form of dialogue, collaborative tasks, structured questioning and demonstration of skills has been found to be effective in enabling cognitive change and self regulated learning (Hmelo & Day, 1999; Palincsar, 1986).

Traditional scaffolding in practice

If we assume that constructivist learning involves students in goal directed, intentional knowledge building, then it is possible to identify instructional design guidelines that enable the creation of effective environments that support learning. According to Oliver & McLoughlin (1999) the principles underpinning constructivist learning can be summarised as in Table 1. That is, in order to support learning, the task, teacher and environment must provide certain conditions for learning.

Table 1: Design guidelines for constructivist learning

  • Provide experience of the knowledge construction process
  • Provide experience in and appreciation of multiple perspectives
  • Create learning tasks that are relevant and authentic
  • Encourage ownership and voice in the learning process
  • Embed learning in social experience
  • Encourage the development of multiple modes of representation
  • Encourage self awareness of the knowledge construction process

An explanation of scaffolding, or support for learning in the practice of face to face teaching is given in Tharp & Gallimore (1997) and other authors. Levels of support may vary in form, substance and context. Support is given when the teacher models the targeted performance of a task, giving verbal explanations that identify the elements of the task and strategy. Limited support would be the provision of cues to some aspects of the task to complement what students have already mastered. In a similar vein, Beed, Hawkins and Roller (1991) have described levels of support that lie between these two extremes:

Roehler and Cantlon (1997) focused on the types and characteristics of scaffolding in learning conversations and several different types were found: Modelling of desired behaviours, this includes: Similarly, Hill & Hannafin (1998) discuss the scaffolds that are required to foster higher order thinking in settings mediated by technology. These include the encouragement of reflective thinking, provision of social support for dialogue, interaction and extension of ideas and feedback from peers and teachers on emerging issues. While the principles underpinning support for learning may not vary according to context, the agency of the teacher in online and face to face contexts is different.

Is support different in an online learning context?

In learning contexts supported by online technology, there is a need to rethink the term scaffolding and apply it to performance requiring an effective support environment. In conventional face to face instructional settings, teachers are usually the agents for providing learner support. It is assumed that good teachers will assume roles whereby they can monitor learning within their classrooms and provide the forms of support required by the individual students. In student centred learning environments, which are typical of most online and computer based settings, teachers have a less visible role but nevertheless have to plan for the provision of effective learning support. In instances where teachers have taken more central roles through technology mediated communication such as email, high levels of personal communication can become unsustainable, for example in expecting teachers to respond individually to each email sent by a student (eg. McLachlan-Smith & Gunn, 2000).

One form of scaffolding that is extremely appropriate to online and flexible learning programs is the support provided among peers. In most online environments, learners are connected through a variety of means and through strategic planning and design of the learning activities, can act in support of the learning of their peers by collaborating, giving comments and feedback on drafts, and by offering alternative perspectives. Designing learner centred scaffolding features for online and Web based courses can provide an effective means of supporting student learning that is both a cost effective and efficient way to manage learning at a distance (Wiley, South, Bassett et al., 1999). Online practitioners are expected to demonstrate a range of skills in the effective use of email, online bulletin boards, and virtual teaching: These skills include: engaging the learner, managing learner expectations, using strategic questioning skills, listening and providing feedback, giving direction and support, managing discussions, team and relationship building, motivating learners, planning, reviewing and monitoring performance (Kemshal-Bell, 2001).

Categories of learning support

The forms of learner activity that have the capacity to provide scaffolding for peers include collaborative and cooperative activities, those involving discussion and dialogue and more defined support activities including peer assessment and peer tutoring. The following sections describe categories of scaffolding that have been developed that provide various forms of assistance and guidance for learners.

Table 2: Categories of scaffolding across different teaching contexts

Orientation: Communication of expectationStudents are provided with a clear description of what they should achieve, and what the target performance is.
CoachingThe learner receives support via software to help performance of a task eg. presentation and demonstration are contextualised via computer application eg audio file.
Eliciting articulationArticulation is encouraged in order to express current understanding and reflection. Fading takes place on the basis of articulated conceptions of knowledge.
Task supportProviding support so the learner is able to perform the task.
Expert regulationSupport is based on provision of expertise by an expert, showing examples and desired learning outcomes
Conceptual scaffoldingHelp provided when the problem or task is delineated, contextualised and defined so as to focus the learner towards central issues and concepts where there may be multiple interpretations. This may be achieved through the presentation of parallel scenarios and problems that enable the learner to practice the skills.
Metacognitive scaffoldingThis supports the underlying processes associated with learning management and reflection. It provides support for thinking through an enabling tool (eg, an electronic notepad) to enable students to record their thinking while engaging with an actual problem.
Procedural scaffoldingProcedural scaffolding supports learners in using available tools and resources. In Web based teaching, this may be in the form of access to databases, support for collaborative learning and resource sharing.
Strategic scaffoldingStrategic scaffolding is afforded by emphasising alternative courses of actions and events that might be applied in classroom contexts. The presentation of multiple scenarios, events and perspectives enables students to engage in planning and decision making.


As technology extends learning beyond the classroom to learning communities, so must roles and concepts of learning and support be reconsidered. In ICT supported learning environments, learning can be assisted by using different technological functionalities, which support conceptual, procedural and metacognitive aspects of learning. The principles underpinning these tools are also extended to form a framework for evaluation of the effectiveness of scaffolding in bringing about self regulated learning. Central to the framework are definitions of learning processes that are essential in metacognition and self regulated learning, constructivist learning and indicators of useability, accessibility and flexibility of the scaffolds to meet learner needs. While developers often engage in summative or formative evaluation they may not recognise the need to engage in microanalysis of learning processes that result from innovations in learning.

For designers and teachers in higher education it is imperative to ensure quality learning outcomes for our students and to establish benchmarks against which we can measure good practice. Designing scaffolds for learning involves deliberate roles for both designers and teachers. In a sustainable online environment, learning supports must be designed in a principled way in order to ensure that learners progress from teacher directed activity to self regulated activity. The principles of scaffolding discussed here are based upon research in self regulated learning, instructional technology and learner centred psychological principles. Nevertheless, it is recognised that scaffolding must be context sensitive and responsive to learner needs, and that it may take different forms according to the environment the learner is situated in.


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Author: Catherine McLoughlin
Head, School of Education, ACT, Australian Catholic University National
Phone: +61 2 62091132 Fax +61 2 6209 1112 Email: c.mcloughlin@signadou.acu.edu.au

Please cite as: McLouhglin, C. (2004). Achieving excellence in teaching through scaffolding learner competence. In Seeking Educational Excellence. Proceedings of the 13th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 9-10 February 2004. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2004/mcloughlin.html

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