PBL Pro Tips from John Larmer: How Can You Provide Scaffolding for Students in PBL?

“Scaffolding” has become one of those edu-speak terms that catch on and become part of our vocabulary, but what does it really mean? Is it like the scaffolding on a building when it’s being repaired or painted? To test your understanding of it, take this quiz:

The term “to scaffold” means:

  1. Supporting student learning with whatever is necessary to help them access and build knowledge and skills
  2. Differentiating instruction so students are provided with the appropriate support for them
  3. Teaching students how to do something that they eventually will no longer need
  4. We’ve once again turned a noun into a verb
  5. All of the above

The answer, as in many of these multiple choice questions, is of course “all of the above.” 

Scaffolding can include general support, different support for different students–and, importantly, it supports a teacher takes away once it’s no longer needed. A common way to explain scaffolding is to think of training wheels on a bicycle; once the rider knows how to balance and pedal (and brake!), the wheels are taken off. An example in the classroom would be a note-taking form students use when doing research; after they learn the skill, they may not need the form.

Let’s explore how scaffolding can be provided in PBL. (And as a former English teacher and language curmudgeon, I will try in this post to not use the verb form.)


Scaffolding for Equity

Sometimes we hear people say that project-based learning is not appropriate for “some” students. They say PBL should be reserved for students who are more skilled, more fluent in English, reading at or above grade level, etc. But all students deserve the benefits PBL can bring, and can succeed with it, if given proper scaffolding.

It’s important not to “over-scaffold,” however, to promote student growth and independence. We should have high expectations for all students. As teacher educator and author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain Zaretta Hammond points out, “Instructional equity happens when the teacher is scaffolding learning to the point that the scaffold at some moments falls away… Unfortunately, what I often see are… permanent instructional crutches. Students remain dependent learners; they never internalize cognitive routines and procedures.”


Scaffolding in PBL

One thing to keep in mind is that some scaffolding can be planned ahead of time because you can anticipate what your students will need in order to successfully complete the project. The need for other or additional scaffolds will become apparent during the project as a result of formative assessment, as you coach students and check their work-in-progress.

Another important point is that most teachers already have a toolbox full of scaffolding strategies; it’s just a matter of repurposing them for a PBL context. You might have to add a few new tools given the nature of PBL–tools for scaffolding inquiry, working in teams, making presentations, and so on.

Here are some typical scaffolding strategies you might already know–which can also be used in PBL to support students in accessing content and academic skills.

  • Use videos, discussions, visuals & audiobooks to provide varied learning opportunities
  • Set up learning stations with different activities & resources
  • Use graphic organizers
  • Provide informational reading at various skill levels (e.g. by using Newsela)
  • Break up a topic into smaller parts
  • Offer workshops that students may opt into

Below are some examples of new scaffolding strategies you might need to use in PBL:


Skill Needed for PBL 

Scaffolding Strategy

How to work in teams

Co-create a collaboration rubric; fishbowl modeling of skills; project management tools

How to generate questions, think critically, or solve a problem

Model thinking skills with think-alouds; post a list of problem-solving or decision-making steps on the classroom wall; use examples

How to formatively assess a piece of work and give peer feedback

Teach routines and protocols for critique & revision; provide sentence starters for “diplomatic” critique; practice with a sample

How to begin an inquiry process

Use thinking routines like “See, Think, Wonder” with a chart to record students’ observations, inferences, & questions

How to interview an expert

Provide a template for what to say, for students to fill in; run practice sessions with the teacher playing the role of expert

How to make a presentation

Co-create a presentation rubric; provide a presentation planning guide; record rehearsals on video for self-critique

How to reflect on learning, process, & products

Use reflection routines; provide prompts; ask students to share & discuss their reflections


For more on scaffolding in PBL, see Project Based Teaching, by Suzie Boss with John Larmer (ASCD/BIE 2018).

About the Author:  

John Larmer is a project-based learning expert. In his 20 years at the Buck Institute for Education/PBLWorks, he co-developed the model for Gold Standard PBL, authored several books and many blog posts, and contributed to curriculum and professional development. John is now the Senior PBL Advisor at Defined Learning.


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