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
How can I help students master more challenging material using Vygotsky's concepts?
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:
- Checklists. These break down larger tasks into smaller ones that feel more surmountable. Some of the smaller tasks may be within the students' range of what they can already do or know (for example, "1) Review previous material on ___.").
- Materials or resources on reserve or online. Provide lists of resources that may be useful for learning the material, and make them easily accessible to students through hard-copy or e-reserve at the library. Links to useful online resources can also be provided.
- Modeling. Provide a demonstration to the class of a similar problem or case, in order
for them to see how the task should be tackled.
Video talk-through. Particularly useful for online classes that don't get to see you regularly in class, create a short video of yourself explaining the task or new material. Sometimes an oral explanation is clearer than a written one.
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).
- Group problem-solving. Have students in mixed groups work toward a problem's solution.
- Paired teaching and learning. Pair students up (even if they select their own partners, the odds are good that ZPDs will vary within the pair) and have them take turns teaching new material to one another. Make sure your instructions to students include ensuring that the material they teach to one another is correct - that is, they should provide feedback to one another as they progress.
- Tutoring. You can privately request volunteers from your more advanced students to work once or twice with a struggling student on course material. Some advanced students are willing to accept this challenge, even for no additional course 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:
- Ask students to provide summary explanations of previous material. Before introducing new material, or as you introduce it and explain its relationship to previous material, call on students to explain the previous material. This process keeps them more engaged and also provides you with an informal assessment of the accuracy of their understanding.
- Give a quick quiz - graded or ungraded - on previous material. For ungraded quizzes, students can grade their own quizzes to see what they know and where they need to re-learn material. If announced, this method helps ensure to some degree that students will review material prior to class.
- Require students to submit one follow-up question regarding previous material. Questions submitted may ask for clarification, or may ask about relationships between the previous material and new ideas. Either type will advance learning in the classroom. Review and answer these questions in a discussion format before introducing new material.