Maximize Learning: Keeping Students in the Zone of Proximal Development

Posted by Erica Warren on

When studying learning and cognition in graduate school, I was drawn to the theories of Lev Vygotsky, a Russian Psychologist from the early 1900s that presented a sociocultural approach to learning and cognition. He offered a theory that I believe presents optimal classroom instruction for all learners.
student climbs through the steps to independent learning

What is Vygotsky’s Theoretical Lens?

At the heart of Vygotsky's theoretical lens is that social interaction plays a key role in the development of learning and cognition. Vygotsky claimed:

"Every function in the child's cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first, between people (inner-psychological) and then inside the child (intra-psychological). This applies equally to voluntary attention, to logical memory, and to the formation of concepts. All the higher functions originate as actual relationships between individuals.”
A second key feature of Vygotsky's theory is that one’s potential for learning depends upon the "zone of proximal development" (ZPD). In the literature, ZPD is synonymous with the later concept, scaffolding, and suggests learning with adult guidance or peer collaboration exceeds independent learning. Vygotsky defined the ZPD as the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem-solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers."

Using the ZPD to Enhance Classroom Teaching and Individualized Instruction:

Metaphoric imagery of a climber to illustrate teaching with a scaffolding approach
It’s always best to keep your students in the ZPD.  See the image above. On the one hand, when learning is too easy, students get bored and their attention drifts away from a lesson. On the other hand, if learning is too hard, then anxiety and confusion can result and when discouraged enough, students can develop a sense of learned helplessness. The “sweet spot” is the ZPD where students are challenged enough to maintain attention and they are able to learn new concepts with guided assistance and scaffolding. Then, as learning happens, the support structure is slowly pulled away. Eventually, students engage in independent learning and practice until they reach automatization. Learning to automatization means that one has fully learned a concept to mastery and the process of completing a problem is virtually automatic and requires little to no thought.
Executive functioning support

What are Some Direct Applications of Teaching in the ZPD?

Because every student’s zone of proximal development is different, it can be challenging for teachers to accommodate the individual needs of each learner. Here are some possible
problems and solutions.
Problem Solution
A student is unable to answer a direct question in class. - The teacher guides the student to the correct answer providing some scaffolding and by asking them questions.
Some students have already learned the concept and others have not.
- Break the class into two groups. Provide challenging applications to the group that has learned the concept and scaffolding instruction to the group that has not learned the concept.
- Allow the students that have learned the concept to teach the students that have not.
My students have a wide range of experience and knowledge with a topic. - Create learning stations with hands-on manipulatives, guiding materials, and demonstration videos that teach the concepts of the lesson. Have beginners, intermediate and advanced stations that increase in difficulty. Help each student select the best learning station. When a student finishes the advanced station, have them assist the other students to mastery.
Some students still have not learned the concept after the lesson.
- Offer one on one guidance and scaffolding with yourself or a peer mentor. 
- Go multisensory, creative and colorful in your instruction. Provide opportunities for the student to watch a demonstration and then do it themselves. Eventually, have them teach the concept back to you.
Some students are ashamed or hide the fact that they have not learned a concept.
- Create a safe environment for students to ask questions. Provide positive reinforcement for students that communicate misconceptions and learning difficulties.
- Create a box in your class where students can write down their questions and ask for additional help.
- Ask students to anonymously rate your lessons. Let them rate their learning on a scale of 0 to 10 (0 = Didn’t learn it - 10 = Got it). Also ask them about how engaging the lesson was (0 = boring and 10 = interesting, fun and engaging).
By tapping into each student's zone of proximal development, you can assure that you will be maximizing your students' learning potential. What's more, you will find that your students are more engaged, find joy in the learning process and become active learners. I hope you found this blog helpful. I would love to hear your thoughts.

Cheers, Dr. Erica Warren
Dr. Erica Warren is the author, illustrator, and publisher of multisensory educational materials at Good Sensory Learning. She is also the director of Learning to Learn and Learning Specialist Courses.

· Blog:
· YouTube Channel:
· Podcast:
· Store:
· Courses:
· Newsletter Sign-up:
· Private Practice: Learning to Learn

Share this post

← Older Post Newer Post →

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published.