Originally published Jul 1, 2018 – updated Mar 10, 2021.

illustration of ladders

The term scaffolding is used to describe the supports provided to students in order to help them access and strengthen a new concept or skill.

Scaffolds help move students from what they can do now to what they will be able to do later. Like training wheels on a bicycle, scaffolding is introduced when students need support and, in many cases, removed when no longer necessary, as students’ mastery and independence increase over time.

Effective scaffolding is both an art and a science – it demands that teachers have a deep understanding of students’ strengths and needs as well as a clear vision of where students are headed. In order to effectively scaffold, it is important for teachers to know and leverage what students can already do independently in order to ensure that the scaffolds introduced both meet students where they are and stretch them towards mastery and independence of the next-level skill.

For example, a teacher might provide both a written text and an audio recording of a reading at a lexile level higher than the student’s current level, or might use a meaning-making text protocol to support all students’ understanding of the text.

Scaffolds can take many forms, and the selection of appropriate scaffolds depends in large part on the nature of the content and the needs of the students.

The following are examples of common scaffolds that can be used to support student understanding:

  • Modeling with think-alouds
  • Breaking a topic into parts
  • Providing visual models
  • Activating prior knowledge
  • Connecting to student interests
  • Using hands-on activities and manipulatives
  • Providing analogies/metaphors
  • Offering verbal cues and guiding questions
  • Using graphic organizers/mind maps
  • Showing examples
  • Pre-teaching vocabulary
  • Asking follow-up questions
  • Using stories
  • Creating opportunities for student conversation/discussion
  • Providing context
  • Offering sentence stems/language models

One question that commonly arises in teacher explorations of scaffolding in PBL is, “Do I provide the same scaffolds to all of my students?”

The answer is, “It depends.”

First, ask yourself: “Can all students potentially benefit from having access to this scaffold?” If the answer is “yes,” make the scaffold available to all learners.

For example, if you want students to be engaging in academic conversations, you might teach a lesson early in the year in which you introduce sentence starters for these conversations, and then post a chart with the sentence starters on the classroom wall. Students who need these sentence starters can refer to them, while students who have internalized them can disregard.

However, it’s also important to ask, “Will reliance on this scaffold inhibit the growth, learning, or challenge of any students?” If the answer to this question is “yes,” consider one of the following approaches:

  • Use the scaffold strategically with a select group of students, or
  • Provide the scaffold as an option and guide students to determine whether they need it.

For example, some students may benefit from a structured outline template for a written assignment, while other students may benefit from the challenge of thinking through organization of their writing without this scaffold. In some cases, you might determine which students would benefit from a given scaffold, and in other cases, you might help students self-determine the level of support and structure they might need.

As teachers design and facilitate projects, they need to think carefully about how to scaffold process skills (such as critical thinking/problem solving, collaboration, and self-management)—in addition to scaffolding students’ acquisition of core content.

Luckily, scaffolding strategies are versatile and power-packed tools – like the Swiss Army knives of teaching.

With a little planning, any of the scaffolding strategies listed here can be used to scaffold either project process or content.

Scaffolding Strategy Example of Use to Scaffold Project Process Example of Use to Scaffold Content
Modeling with think-alouds Model how to generate student questions during a project launch Model how to approach a challenging math scenario
Breaking a topic into parts Analyze components of the collaboration rubric in small groups Practice making hypotheses in science to support larger understanding of the scientific method
Using graphic organizers/mind maps Develop timeline for project process Complete character analysis chart for reading fictional stories
Creating opportunities for student conversation/discussion Teams pair up to critique one another's products/presentations Engage in a Socratic Seminar on a controversial historical issue

The art of PBL facilitation requires that teachers plan thoughtfully before launching a project and respond flexibly to student needs as the project progresses.

With practice and reflection, PBL facilitators get better at designing the supports that will best meet their students’ needs. They learn to identify the moments when supports are appropriate, and to help students to identify when they may no longer need to rely on these supports.

As students encounter new challenges, they may need new types of scaffolds, but the goal is always the same: finding the sweet spot of challenge and support for each student in order to continually expand their access to new learning.

Yes, we provide PBL training for educators!

PBLWorks offers a variety of PBL workshops, courses, and services for teachers, school and district leaders, and instructional coaches - whether you're just getting started or advancing your practice.

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Sarah Field, Senior Curriculum Manager
Sarah designs professional development programs and curriculum for PBLWorks.