Scaffolding an event

Dr Alison G. Harvey

Photograph from inside an electric pylon showing its scaffolded structure- An image shot from below of an electricity pylon looking up through its inner structure

What is the idea?

In scientific disciplines we often resort to practical labs or question sheets as the opportunities for students to apply knowledge. The idea outlined here aims to allow more creativity and decision making by applying the principles of ‘scaffolding’ to teaching in higher education (Wood et al., 1976). The activity involves providing students with an event or activity (relating to their course material) that they need to design and build. For example: Preparing a scientific article, planning a workshop or conference, planning a scientific experiment, planning a lesson, applying a professional framework to a project.

The facilitator provides layers of scaffolding to support the process, adding further layers as the students progress. However, it is the students who make the decisions, fill in the details and use their own creative ideas and collaboration to apply their knowledge, and in doing so, identify gaps in understanding.

Why this idea?

The fundamental benefits to using this idea for active learning are summed up in the concept that we are asking the facilitators to relinquish some control over the outcome of the learning activity.

Creativity breeds inspiration and motivation (Al-Zahrani, 2015; Nordstrom & Korpelainen, 2011). By allowing the students to take the project in a direction of their choice they begin to own the learning process.

Choices and freedom empower students to use their voice and to incorporate their own lived experiences into the learning process (hooks, 1994). It allows them to learn from one another. It also avoids teachers prescribing ‘the way things are done’.

In addition, by giving the students some control of the ‘steering wheel’ they are more likely to notice gaps in their knowledge. Bloom’s taxonomy talks about deeper level learning verbs such as design, create, choose (Kennedy, 2006; Krathwohl, 2002). In order to achieve these deeper levels of learning the students need to take some ownership of the process (Biggs & Tang, 2011a, 2011b; Spronken-Smith et al., 2012). The ultimate end point of the activity would be to ask the students to reflect on the outcomes of the various groups and to provide each other with feedback.

How could others implement this idea?

Example implementation

I have previously used this idea with students in groups of 3-4 where the ‘event’ to plan was: An outreach activity to introduce ‘Biomaterials’ to the public.

A short brief was provided outlining the key aspects that must be covered and level 1 scaffolding instructions were given.

Students had 1 hour to:

  • Choose the specific area they will focus on
  • Define a title for their activity
  • Determine the audience and type of event (e.g. in school/outreach festival)
  • Outline the aims for themselves/the audience
  • Brainstorm activity ideas

After 1 hour a feedback point is introduced. Students share their initial plan in 3-5 minutes with another group and give each other feedback.

Over the next hour, level 2 scaffolding involves:

  • Considering feedback and making changes,
  • Deciding on their activity
  • Create timeline of jobs prior to event
  • Create schedule for event
  • Ask: Can other aspects from the unit be incorporated?

Another feedback point is used followed by the level 3 scaffolding:

  • More details added to the timeline and schedule, including specific details of materials/ resources needed, delegation of jobs, external support etc.

In this instance the students submit their plans from each scaffold and responses to feedback as coursework.

Instructions for implementation

The first step in implementing this idea is to think of an activity or event where an aspect of your course material could be used in a real-life situation.

Once the activity has been decided you will need to break the activity down into defined components that need to be chosen, designed, planned etc.

Next, separate these components out according to complexity and level of detail needed.

You can then create the scaffolding layers. Layer 1 will use the broadest and simplest components. Layer 2 asks for more detail and incorporates more components with less direction from the facilitator. It is up to you to decide how many layers and what time period this will cover: is this a one-hour activity? Or will it run through the course?

Between each scaffolding layer add in feedback checkpoints. These could involve peer feedback or feedback directly from the facilitator. A key question to ask the students at these points is ‘could we take this plan and carry out this activity tomorrow?’. There is usually more detail needed!

Ideally at the end of the project the students will reflect on the outcomes of their work. Or maybe they can put it into practice.

Transferability to different contexts

This idea can be easily transferred to different situations. The key is in identifying how the material that is being taught could be used, how students would apply what they have learnt to a real-life situation in a way that requires them to understand the concepts and make decisions. Activities that involve some aspect of students sharing their knowledge through teaching are particularly useful.

The level of difficulty can be tailored depending on the level of student ability. By creating a more rigid scaffold we can guide lower-level students more. By reducing the number of questions and prescriptions in the scaffolding we allow the students to explore the ‘what if…?’ questions!


Al-Zahrani, A. M. (2015). From passive to active: The impact of the flipped classroom through social learning platforms on higher education students’ creative thinking. British Journal of Educational Technology, 46(6), 1133–1148.

Biggs, J., & Tang, C. (2011a). Contexts for effective teaching and learning. In J. Biggs & C. Tang (Eds.), Teaching for Quality Learning at University (4th ed.) (pp. 58-80). Open University Press.

Biggs, J. and Tang, C. (2011b). The changing scene in university teaching. In J. Biggs & C. Tang (Eds), Teaching for Quality Learning at University (4th ed.) (pp. 3-15). Open University Press.

hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. Routledge.

Kennedy, D. (2006). Writing and using learning outcomes: A practical guide. University College Cork.

Krathwohl, D. R. (2002). A revision of Bloom’s taxonomy: An overview. Theory into practice, 41(4), 212–218.

Nordstrom, K., & Korpelainen, P. (2011). Creativity and inspiration for problem solving in engineering education. Teaching in Higher Education, 16(4), 439–450.

Spronken-Smith, R., Walker, R., Batchelor, J., O’Steen, B., & Angelo, T. (2012). Evaluating student perceptions of learning processes and intended learning outcomes under inquiry approaches. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 37(1), 57–72.

Wood, D., Bruner, J. S., & Ross, G. (1976). The Role of Tutoring in Problem Solving. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 17(2), 89–100.

Image Attributes

Steel Scaffolding by Didgeman is used under Pixabay Licence

About the author

Dr Alison Harvey is a Teaching and Scholarship Lecturer at the University of Manchester, with a background in Biomedical Materials Science. She has designed and delivered bespoke courses for postgraduate students within the field as well as teaching/facilitating undergraduate learning. Particular interests include inclusive learning and blended learning approaches.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

100 Ideas for Active Learning Copyright © 2022 by Dr Alison G. Harvey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

Share This Book