Scaffolding in PBL

EdTech 542 Learning Log Entry 7/11/14

Scaffolding for students in a classroom has become a more natural consideration for me in recent years. So when given the opportunity to look up and read a scaffolding article, I jumped at the chance. Although the article by Jamie McKenzie has outdated links since this was published in 1999, the content is fabulous! Jamie lists eight features/reasons everyone should scaffold a lesson in the classroom.

  1. Provides Clear Directions
  2. Clarifies Purpose
  3. Keeps Students on Task
  4. Offers Assessment to Clarify Expectations
  5. Points Students to Worthy Sources
  6. Reduces Uncertainty, Surprise and Disappointment
  7. Delivers Efficiency
  8. Creates Momentum

 (McKenzie, 1999) My favorites are numbers one through eight!!

My personal experience with scaffolding is that it is a very sensitive line to find for your own personal classroom. How much should you scaffold? If you scaffold too much, then there is not much left for the students to discover. If you don’t scaffold enough, then students will give up due to frustration.

So what do you do as a teacher when planning a new activity? My suggestion is to under-scaffold the first time through an activity. However, you need a structured classroom plan such that you can quickly and efficiently deliver new information to students when the occasion presents itself. There are many ways to have this plan in place. Many structured group work organizational systems now assign students more specific roles. For example, I use a group system called Complex Instruction (CI) (Cohen, 1999). (By the way, besides the Pacific Northwest AP Institute in Bellevue, WA, this was one of the three best trainings I have ever attended!!)

In CI, I have assigned roles to students; Team Captain, Facilitator, Resource Manager and Recorder/Reporter. So when my class embarks upon an activity that is also new to me, I never know when an issue may arise. In the event that I see group 1, then 2 and now group 3 all struggling with the same instructions, I call a time out and call in for some experts. Assigning an expert to the group is a way to scaffold. Many different group activity organizational systems will assign experts. For my activities when I see a frustration point that was not anticipated, I will call for “all Facilitators to see me outside”. Then once we are all outside, I will give those students the hints they need to get the group back on task and help jump start the group momentum. A side benefit is the efficiency this creates. I can tell one person from each group and then they tell the other 24 students in the room. I could have called for the attention of the entire class, but by only telling the Facilitators, I am also assigning status to that student. This is an important idea behind CI so that your classroom group tasks stay running at close to 100% student participation. You want all students to always be contributing.

Then after an activity is done for the first time, sometimes I fix to provide clear directions and clarify purpose but other times I leave the group task as is. Instead I will make note of when I need to call for an expert from each group. This way I am reassigning status to students and it helps keep them on task.

Inadvertently, by scaffolding group tasks in this way, I also noticed that kids do not get frustrated and give up. They trust me in that if there is an issue I will help, but not just give them an answer, thus reducing uncertainty, surprise and disappointment. Students also begin to trust themselves and take more responsibility for their learning. I see this after a few activities. They have success on one or two activities, then they more likely to fully participate during the next task.

Keep in mind, I have been teaching for 21 years. After 18 years and complex instruction training, I changed absolutely everything. Direct instruction is now limited to only those topics where I can’t envision an authentic group task; something too easy or something too hard to discover in a reasonable time frame! What did it take? I had to relearn how to teach and I am so glad I did!! It is vital to scaffold for student success, but not for ease of student efforts.


Cohen, E. G., Lotan, R. A., Scarloss, B. R., & Arellano, A. R. (1999). Complex instruction: Equity in cooperative learning classrooms. Theory into Practice, 38(2), 80-86. Retrieved from

McKenzie, J. (1999). Scaffolding for success. From Now On: The Educational Technology Journal 9(4). Retrieved from


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