Skip to main content
Mental Wellbeing

Education for Mental Health Toolkit - Scaffolded Design

A key pedagogic principle, supported by decades of research, is the concept of scaffolded instruction and learning (1-2).

Scaffolded Design Introduction

A key pedagogic principle, supported by decades of research, is the concept of scaffolded instruction and learning (1-2). Scaffolding in curriculum design guides students to move from novice through to independent learner, providing support, appropriate stretch and sustainable challenge at every stage of learning.  

Scaffolding, in a higher education curriculum, accepts that many students will begin without key knowledge and skills and that they may be used to a more passive, performance focussed approach to learning (2). The curriculum is specifically designed to begin learning where students are and to provide the additional instruction and support they need at this early stage. Learning is appropriately paced, with manageable amounts of information explored in chunks that are logically sequenced to build a coherent picture using core concepts (3-4).  

Education for Mental Health

Download a digital copy of the full toolkit, the staff development toolkit and case studies.

Download the report

Through this approach, the curriculum ensures that students are explicitly prepared for each task and stage of learning. This ensures that learning remains within the student’s proximal zone of development (1). As the student develops knowledge, understanding and skills, support and instruction can be reduced to allow them to continue to develop independence. In this way, the structure of the curriculum provides students with feelings of safety and control and supports the development of genuine competence and self-efficacy. Academic challenge remains within reach of the student’s ability and connects to pre-existing learning and experiences, helping students to find meaning within their subject and to build a sense of disciplinary belonging.  

Scaffolding also supports students to navigate elements of the hidden curriculum, that may otherwise act as barriers to learning, particularly for those students from non-traditional backgrounds (5). A curriculum that employs scaffolding will not assume the existence of knowledge or of social or navigational capital.  

Curriculum that does not provide this scaffolding and which assumes pre-developed ability, can create distance between students and their subject. This can lead students to doubt their ability to succeed, increase imposter syndrome, adopt surface level, survival approaches and increase anxiety. Feelings of incompetence can also severely undermine motivation and increase the risk of withdrawal.  

This section will explore elements of scaffolding, within a higher education curriculum, and specific ways in which it can be utilised to support learning and wellbeing.

Buff line
  1. Vygotsky LS, Cole M. Mind in society: Development of higher psychological processes. Harvard university press; 1978.
  2. Kift S, Nelson K, Clarke J. Transition pedagogy: A third generation approach to FYE-A case study of policy and practice for the higher education sector. Student Success. 2010;1(1):1-20.
  3. McPhail G. The search for deep learning: A curriculum coherence model. Journal of Curriculum Studies. 2020 Jul 17:1-5.
  4. Wood D, Bruner JS, Ross G. The role of tutoring in problem solving. Journal of child psychology and psychiatry. 1976 Apr;17(2):89-100. Available from: doi: 
  5. Giroux HA, Penna AN. Social education in the classroom: The dynamics of the hidden curriculum. Theory & Research in Social Education. 1979 Mar 1;7(1):21-42. Available from: doi: 10.1080/00933104.1979.10506048.