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Scaffold Complex Learning

A page within CATL Instructor's Guide to Inclusive Excellence

Brief Overview

"Scaffolding" has come to mean a variety of practices. In higher education in particular, scaffolding is used to describe learning designs that reduce cognitive load by eliminating some learning tasks while the learner acquires a more foundational set of skills and knowledge. Training wheels for a rookie bicyclist is a good example: the training wheels allow the learner to master pedaling, braking, and steering first, since those are skills and knowledge required for maintaining balance.

Summary of Research

Originally, scaffolding was proposed as a term to describe what we today might call tutoring -- a one-on-one timely intervention by an more advanced learner or an expert, for an individual student, that enables that student to progress beyond what they could learn without the intervention. Today, most researchers emphasize that - however the intervention is constructed - scaffolding is

  • "continent" (meaning that the intervention is only provided to a learner who needs it),
  • it "fades" (the supports retract as the learner becomes more proficient),
  • and that it "transfers responsibility" (from the instructor to the learner).

Current research has focused on the use of technology (like the training wheel - although today more likely to be some type of software) to identify when intervention is needed and to intervene. As the term is often used in practice in higher education, it tends to includes fading and transfer of responsibility, but less frequently contingency. With larger class sizes in particular, instructors assume that universal scaffolding designs can provide useful review even for students who could have moved further without the supports; other instructors find ways for students to demonstrate their understanding and move forward faster. Which strategy to choose depends on expected learning outcomes.

It remains important that, as in good tutoring, scaffolded designs must not only help the learner to complete the task or fix the problem, but also to learn from the process.


Supply the steps that students cannot yet do so that all students can continue to learn about the larger task while they develop the requisite subskills. For example, if a course learning outcome aims at developing research skills, the first step in that process might be to develop a researchable question or topic. If students flounder with that task, it may be because they don't know enough about the field yet. The scaffold, then, might be that you supply several sufficiently focused research questions from which students can choose so that they can focus on the part of the learning outcome that is most crucial to your course goals.

Many instructors have found the "decoding the disciplines" process to be an effective way to identify better ways to scaffold student learning. The process begins with identifying "bottlenecks" in student learning (see References/Resources below) -- complex ideas or processes that students have difficulty understanding well enough to apply them in other contexts. For example, recording student "think-alouds" and using those to identify patterns is an effective method of determining where students go wrong in their thinking about complex ideas or processes.

Here's a course design planning strategy to consider:

  1. Start with a learning outcome and clarify the context for which students need to master it. "Ride a bicycle" provides insufficient context for a good scaffolded design. A clearer outcome might be to "ride a bicycle unaided from your home to school and back." The context helps you identify the levels of complex learning students will need to engage. To be a good cyclist, learners must ride in traffic, but understanding traffic itself includes a variety of learning tasks.
  2. Identify the learning tasks. Be alert to your own expert blind spots: learning as seemingly simple as riding a bike includes tasks we may take for granted (knowing what "brakes" are and how they work on a variety of bikes, for example). The learner's prior experience can be important as well -- which side of the street to ride on, or knowing only bicycles with one speed and brakes applied by pushing backward on the pedals, for example.
  3. Prioritize the learning tasks. Which tasks depend on other learning tasks? The brilliance of training wheels, as noted above, is that they allow new riders to learn several skills on which the skill of maintaining balance relies before the rider needs to focus on balance. Perhaps one such support will work for your learners; perhaps you will need several.
    1. Prioritizing for developmental learning may not be the same thing as learning a complex task in procedural order. In other words, a scaffold for learning how to do research in your field might better begin with analysis of data rather than with research design or data collection.
    2. How to prioritize the learning is the most complex and interesting problem in designing a learning plan, since you may have several completing priorities: preparing students for the next course in a sequence vs. providing sufficient context to keep students engaged.
  4. Build in metacognitive tasks so that students learn to monitor their own understanding.
  5. Contextualize learning tasks. Where will a context for learning support learning, and where will it overwhelm? Using the "riding a bike" example, will the ability to identify the parts of the bicycle help learners understand what brakes are, and how these brakes work differently from those brakes?
  6. Develop the individual tasks and necessary course materials.
  7. Design a method of assessing the scaffolded design, especially in comparison with an earlier design. Collect data, analyze, and revise.


Belland, B. R. (2017). Instructional Scaffolding: Foundations and Evolving Definition. In B. R. Belland (Ed.), Instructional Scaffolding in STEM Education: Strategies and Efficacy Evidence (pp. 17–53). Springer International Publishing.

James, I., & Okpala, C. (2010). The Use Of Metacognitive Scaffolding To Improve College Students’ Academic Success. Journal of College Teaching and Learning, 7(11), 47–49.

Kuiper, C., Smit, J.,  De Wachter, J., & Elen, J. (2017). Scaffolding tertiary students’ writing in a genre-based writing intervention. Journal of Writing Research, 9(1), 27–59.

O’Connor, E., McDonald, F., & Ruggiero, M. (2014). Scaffolding Complex Learning: Integrating 21st Century Thinking, Emerging Technologies, and Dynamic Design and Assessment to Expand Learning and Communication Opportunities. Journal of Educational Technology Systems, 43(2), 199–226.

Pace, D., & Middendorf, J., eds. (2004). Decoding the disciplines : Helping students learn disciplinary ways of thinking. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, no. 98.  See also Pinnow, E. (2016). Decoding the disciplines: An approach to scientific thinking. Psychology Learning & Teaching, 15(1), 94-101.  See also Middendorf, J., Mickutė, J., Saunders, T., Najar, J., Clark-Huckstep, A. E., Pace, D., & McGrath, with K. E. and N. (2014). What’s feeling got to do with it? Decoding emotional bottlenecks in the history classroom. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education.  A 2017 edition of the Pace/Middendorf book was recently published.

Reiser, B. J. (2004). Scaffolding Complex Learning: The Mechanisms of Structuring and Problematizing Student Work. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 13(3), 273–304. JSTOR.

van de Pol, J., Volman, M., & Beishuizen, J. (2010). Scaffolding in Teacher—Student Interaction: A Decade of Research. Educational Psychology Review, 22(3), 271–296. JSTOR.


Hoskins, D. (2020). Designing Inclusive Courses: Scaffold complex learning. In Instructor's Guide to Inclusive Excellence. University of Wisconsin at La Crosse Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from