Scaffolding Student Engagement

Welcome to Learning Event 8 (#LE8): Scaffolding student engagement

(Need more info about Learning Events in general? Visit the Learning Commons for a full description of this series.)

Learning Event 8 (#LE8) focuses scaffolding learners as they engage with course content in digital spaces to ensure they can succeed in online learning.

As online education becomes more ubiquitous in society, the students that enter these learning environments will be increasingly diverse in terms of background, age, life experience, and learner backgrounds. Online learning presents numerous opportunities to support learners, but there is always the challenge that learners may not feel supported, or feel overwhelmed in a class.

Some of the challenges in teaching online exist because instructors cannot physically see students. Educators don’t see opportunities when students are struggling, or when they need to be challenged. As you develop online courses, there is a need to ensure students are given the correct amount of materials, resources, and support to help them succeed. There is also a need to develop opportunities for differentiation of instruction and assessment for all learners. This is why we need to focus on scaffolding all learners as they interact in our courses.

Focus: Instructional Scaffolding refers to a series of instructional techniques used to increase student comprehension and understanding of content or a concept. The instructional supports are tailored to each student and the focus is on student-centered learning, as opposed to teacher-centered learning. Scaffolding progressively moves students toward greater independence and automaticity in the learning process.

Scaffolding is influenced by Vygotsky’s (1978) concept of the zone of proximal development, which is based on three points of the learning process:

  • What the learner cannot do
  • What the learner can do with assistance
  • What the learner can do unaided

In terms of scaffolding learners in online spaces Moore (1989) suggested considering a minimum of three types of interactions for teaching and learning in online learning environments: learner-content interaction, learner-instructor interaction, and learner-learner interaction. To put a finer point on things, Jumaat & Tasir (2014) identified four types of scaffolding that can occur in online courses

  • Procedural scaffolding – helping students use the tools available to them
  • Conceptual scaffolding –  helping students prioritize fundamental concepts in learning
  • Strategic scaffolding – helping students identify alternative ways to tackle learning problems
  • Metacognitive scaffolding – helping students think about their thinking and self-assess during learning

Check out the materials presented below to learn and engage more!


How to Keep the Human Element in Online Classes – Michelle Pacansky-Brock. “While teaching online certainly changes how instructors communicate with their students, the instructor-student relationship is just as vital to the student learning and engagement in online classes as it is in an offline class.”

Scaffolding Online Student Success – Cassandra Sardo & Anthony Sindelar. “The concept of scaffolding is influenced by Lev Vygotsky’s (1978) Zone of Proximal development theory. He conceptualizes three concentric circles that represent 1) things you can currently do, 2) things you can do with assistance from an expert or fellow learner, and 3) things beyond your capability.”

Devotedly Digital: Why I Love Teaching Online – Laura Gibbs.Now, online, I have the time and opportunity to connect with every single student, watching them make their own path through the class as they choose what to read, what to write, and what to learn, and I get to know each of them through the accumulation of those choices.


The Growth of Knowledge: Crash Course Psychology (9:49)

Zone of Proximal Development (5:20)

Michelle Pacansky-Brock on Humanizing online learning (44:40)


How can you scaffold learners as they engage with content in your courses?


Humanize instruction by supporting students by scaffolding them to success, and then helping build for automaticity. 


Scaffolding is about guiding students as they engage with your course content in a carefully planned, guided manner. Instructors can foster social interaction in classes while differentiating and assessing all learners.

To make this happen in your classroom Li-Shih Huang offers the following guidance in this post:

  1. Begin reflection where the learners are.
  2. Provide scaffolding to suit your learners’ reflective continuum.
  3. Give learners the freedom to experiment with different modalities of reflection.

This resource on how to humanize your online class from Michelle Pacansky-Brock is an amazing heuristic to review as you consider supporting students.

We would love to hear about what you created or implemented as a result of this Learning Experience! Please send an email to if you have something to share!