Yes, what Lev Vygotsky had to say about learning was really focused on children's learning. However, his principles hold true for learners no matter their age.
Consider this: If you are a middle-of-the-road crossword puzzler, would you prefer to tackle (a) the New York Times puzzle, (b) a puzzle in the local paper, or (c) a puzzle written for children?
If you are an average puzzler, the answer is likely (b). The kids' puzzle will be too easy (no challenge) and the NY Times puzzle is too difficult (little chance of success). We operate best when faced with tasks that are just a little challenging to us but not so hard that they become overwhelming.
Vygotsky said the same is true for learning. He said we learn best when new material is in the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) - not too easy, and just challenging enough that, with a little help from a more learned individual, we can master the material and shift our Zone upward.
The process of receiving help from others to master material is called "scaffolding." If you think of a wall being built, it initially has scaffolding to support the structure, which is gradually removed as the structure is capable of standing on its own. Vygotsky said this happens in learning, too: We receive help from people who know more, until we know enough on our own and no longer require assistance to grasp that bit of knowledge.
A simple and concrete example of this is when we help children learn to ride a bicycle - first with training wheels, then as we hold the bicycle steady for them (with some verbal coaching as well), and finally without any help, as children ride independently. Their ZPD for "bike riding" just shifted upward and, perhaps unfortunately, they are now ready to work on mastering more difficult stunts like wheelies or hands-free riding [which will likely be learned from more skilled peers rather than sensible adults].
The most useful takeaway points from Vygotsky's theory as pertain to college instruction are:
Make new material challenging but not too difficult
Ensure students receive some coaching assistance as they learn
1. Provide as much support as possible for new and challenging tasks. Students can then choose as much or as little as they need, depending on their level of ZPD. Some examples of support that can be provided include:
2. Take advantage of the variety of ZPDs among your students. Some students will be more advanced toward mastery of your course material than others. Try grouping students so that each group has varying levels of mastery. The more advanced students will be able to help scaffold for the less advanced students. Be sure, however, to consider the learning needs of your more advanced students as well - perhaps by issuing them additional challenges (these don't necessarily need to be for credit).
3. Review material to ensure students are roughly in the same beginning ZPD. Teaching new material assumes that previous material upon which the new concepts build are already well known. However, not every student has mastered previous material. Since spending time on review is never detrimental to any learner (see this article by Willingham for more explanation), go ahead and do some regular reviewing. Here are a few ways to accomplish this: