Strategies for Helping Underperforming Students

In education, instructional scaffolding is a method teachers use to show students how to solve problems while offering support as they need it. For example, let’s look at a construction crew building a house. The crew uses scaffolding to create support for themselves and their materials. As the crew completes each section of the house and no longer needs support, they remove the scaffolds, indicating that the house can now stand on its own.

Like a construction crew, teachers can use scaffolding in education to support students as they learn new concepts and master old ones. Then as students show signs of understanding, teachers can gradually remove the scaffolds to enable independent learning. However, the types of scaffolding to use depends on the students’ zone of proximal development, lesson type, and aims of the lesson. 

The zone of proximal development

Scaffolding in education is built on the idea of the zone of proximal development, which was first theorized in the 1930s by Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky. The zone of proximal development (ZDP) is the distance between what students can accomplish on their own and what they need help with. For one student, this could be the difference between mastering five-letter words and struggling with ten-letter words.

The presence of a significant other—such as a teacher, parent, peer, group of peers, educational technology, and learning materials— is a key element of scaffolding and helps students move the zone of proximal development. They help students develop new skills, using scaffolding techniques, and help them build on what they have already mastered. 

Generally, scaffolding supports (scaffolds) are in three categories:

  • Sensory: This involves physical and visual elements together. Modeling in front of the class is also part of sensory scaffolding since images and gestures help illustrate a topic better. 
  • Graphics: Mind maps, graphic organizers, and anchor charts help students create connections between abstract concepts. 
  • Collaboration — Collaborative learning is an important part of the classroom, both between teachers and students or among students. Teachers can divide the class into small groups where they teach themselves (group of peers). They could also play math games and take vocab lessons together. This is to support students that have difficulty understanding math or science problems and other learners. 

Scaffolding in Education

Thinking about what scaffolding could look like in your classroom? Let’s discuss practical examples.

Understanding Instructional Scaffolding
Support children to learn


  • Utilize prior knowledge

As a teacher, if you introduce students to a new topic, you can’t start scaffolding until you understand what students already know and where they need improvement. To do this, you might seek data from previous units or past teachers or take time to ask students questions about their previous sessions. You could also create mini-lessons to ascertain their level of understanding.


  • Present the topic and think aloud

Once you ascertain the areas students understand and areas they need support, present the topic and think aloud. Modeling problems is a part of scaffolding. Allow students to think about the problem/topic, then walk them through using the different categories of scaffolding supports mentioned above, such as images, actions, illustrations, etc.


  • Repeat often

The chances of most students understanding a concept when introduced once are slim. So continue to reinforce the concept/topic using different entry points to increase students’ understanding. You can use the following techniques:

  • Create small group discussions.
  • Pause and ask students strategic questions intermediately.
  • Think-pair-share. Let them think on their own and share ideas.


  • Encourage participation

Whether you are teaching remotely or in person, encourage students to participate in activities. That is the easiest way to use their answers to gauge their understanding and determine the best scaffolding support they need. 

  • Check to understand again.

In addition to repeating a concept or topic, walk through the whole teaching process again with students and check for understanding. At this point, students should be able to answer questions and demonstrate skills independently. You could start with direct questions to a student and check in on his/her understanding. Then work with the whole class or small groups to ensure concepts are understood, and urge them to practice individually.

  • Let them demonstrate knowledge

One of the easiest ways to show understanding is being able to demonstrate the knowledge gained. Students should be able to explain what they understood before letting them go. This is also one of the trickiest parts of scaffolding – letting go too soon might make students struggle more than they need to, but continuing modeling for too long might lead to boredom. Demonstration helps you understand your students’ learning process and knowing when to let go. 

Benefits Of Scaffolding In Education

  • Boosts students’ understanding.
  • Builds learning momentum.
  • It is engaging.
  • Scaffolding gives a teacher real-time insight into students’ progress.
  • It facilitates independent learning.
  • It encourages collaborative learning.
  • Scaffolding also allows students to practice often.

Challenges of Instructional Scaffolding

  • Planning and implementing scaffolds is time-consuming and demanding.
  • Knowing when to remove or sustain the scaffold is quite difficult.
  • Selecting appropriate scaffolds that match the diverse learning styles of students is tasking.


Like everything else, scaffolding requires practice to get right. But it pays off over time. Through supportive learning with instructional scaffolds, teachers can help students become independent learners, both in school and life in general.


Understanding Instructional Scaffolding

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