How to Scaffold eLearning Content: Four Proven Strategies and Tactics Worth Exploring

FACT: People learn differently, and learning and development (L&D) professionals must adapt to that reality to get results. But, sometimes, it’s not practical to create multiple, personalized versions of an eLearning course to cater to three (or more!) different learning styles. That would take too much time, effort, and resources to make eLearning cost-effective for companies and freelance L&D professionals. So, what’s the answer?


In this post, we’ll explain what scaffolding is, and discuss a popular misconception about it. We’ll also explore some scaffolding strategies and tactics that eLearning creators may consider to make their courses more engaging and effective to their audiences.


Some L&D professionals, especially those new to the field, might equate scaffolding to “personalization” – it is not! Assuming the two are synonymous would risk missing the point of scaffolding. Unlike personalization, scaffolding does not seek to produce unique content to fit an individuals’ learning style.  Scaffolding is an approach to gradually lead the learner to where you wish him/her to be/go.

The objective behind scaffolding is to take a complex idea, multifaceted concept, or difficult lesson, and re-package it into smaller ideas, concepts or components, to ensure each learner – ultimately – ends up with the same level of learning and understanding as the rest of the class. Both personalization and scaffolding, however, aim to accomplish similar objectives based on what’s known as the zone of proximal development (ZPD).

In the words of educationist Eileen Raymond[1]:

”The ZPD is the distance between what {learners} can do by themselves and the next learning that they can be helped to achieve with competent assistance.”

Simply stated, in the context of scaffolding, the ZPD defines what a learner can/can’t do independently, and how trainers can help him/her become independent. So, what can eLearning course designers do to leverage the ZPD and achieve their learning objectives?


Here are four proven scaffolding strategies to consider:

Task deconstruction

This strategy revolves around breaking down thoughts and ideas, and gradually moving learners through to the end of a lesson, chapter, or module – but in piecemeal form. For instance, in an online course on Political Sciences, instead of asking learners to write an essay to “Define Democracy”, a scaffolded approach might be to first discuss and debate various components of good governance in general (Independent judiciary, Rule of law, Civic participation, Free press, etc.).

Once learners demonstrate their grasp of the individual ideas, there’s a greater probability that they’ll put the various pieces together in an essay – by themselves! On the other hand, requiring them to tackle the “big picture” at the onset will likely result in failure.

Telling by showing

While many learners might grasp deconstructed thoughts and ideas on their journey to understanding the “big picture”, not all of them might. A good scaffolding strategy to bridge that gap is using a show and tell approach. This involves offering practical and visual demonstrations of right and wrong.

In our Political Science course, trainers may demonstrate the principle of Rule of Law (perhaps using current affairs and news stories) by illustrating what constitutes Rule of Law and what doesn’t. It may also help to present previously written essays to the class, highlighting well-written and poorly-constructed papers. Using this approach, learners will more easily grasp what they must and should not do to create successful essays.

Leverage prior knowledge and experience

The way our brains are “wired”, we learn new concepts and ideas better when we can relate to them. A great scaffolding strategy is to link the learner’s previous experiences to the new concepts introduced. This linkage helps provide prior context to simplify a complex task in ways that learners can understand (or perform) them with little additional support.

For instance, in their prior academic lives, many eLearners may have experienced how student councils or university governing bodies work – with representation from students, faculty, administration staff, and management working together.  Political science trainers may link those experiences to help learners understand the concept of civic participation in a democracy.

Additionally, if there are pre-requisite courses (such as Journalism 101 or Communications 101), linking the “Free press” concepts to some ideas from that pre-reg courses may also help Political science learners better understand the requirements for their “Define Democracy” project.

Scaffolding resources and tools

Coming to terms with progressively complex new concepts and subject matter is always a challenge. However, one way to guide learners through that journey is to equip them with the tools and resources needed to further their journey one step at a time.

For instance:

  • Provide learners an advanced copy of a simplified and detailed glossary of terms related to the upcoming module
  • Prior to beginning a module, circulate reading content, along with summaries and Coles Notes-type materials, so learners might prepare for what’s ahead
  • Don’t spring assignments and projects on learners. Instead, gradually expose them to what you expect them to do (in future tasks and assignments) throughout the module


So, what tactics should you employ to implement these strategies? Well, here are a few considerations:

  • Open discussions: Don’t restrict your debates and discussions to the current module content. When possible, expand such discussion to cover upcoming topics – even though such deliberations might be at a macro level
  • Facilitate peer-to-peer learning: There’ll always be learners who are several steps ahead of their peers. Typically, the trainer can tap that learning gap by facilitating peer-to-peer learning forms so the more advanced learner can share their knowledge and pull their slower-learning colleagues up the learning ladder
  • Learner feedback: It might not always be possible for trainers to know what topics/modules learners (or groups of learners) are struggling with. Providing elearners multiple opportunities – pre-course, mid-level, and end-of-module – to give self-reflection-type feedback helps trainers create specific scaffolding intervention strategies
  • Be discrete and be available: Not all learners prefer to be open/honest about their learning challenges during “open” feedback sharing sessions. One tactic to address that issue, and to get specific insight into learning gaps, is to offer “one on one” consultations with eLearners. Additionally, where possible, don’t restrict your availability to “business hours only”. Being available at the learner’s time zone(or based on a learners’ availability) can help trainers get a better and more timely sense of learning gaps, thereby offering opportunities for more effective scaffolding interventions.

Using these strategies and tactics, singly or in combination, is a great way to implement a scaffolding approach for your next eLearning course.

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  • Marina, Thank you for the article. Good stuff. Marc

    December 11, 2020 at 8:56 pm

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