What does research say about tutoring? The sequel

by Luke Jackson, Ph. D.

Sometimes you just “get” something right away like it was an innate gift provided to you from the angels above. You were just born with that natural ability. Most of us have at least one quality that comes naturally without much effort or help. For the rest of us, and for other aspects of life, we often need some assistance to understand.

The term “proximal” refers to those skills that the learner is “close” to mastering (McLeod, 2019). Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) developed the concept of zone of proximal development. Let’s look at the diagram below.

ZPD. SS is struggling student. MKO is more knowledgeable other.

The green bullseye is something you can easily do by yourself without much thought or cognitive stress. After that comfort level, SS (struggling student) can do certain tasks or learn material with some assistance. This is the zone of proximal development, or ZPD. Vygotsky believed that a student in the ZPD for a task, providing the appropriate assistance, will allow the student enough of a “boost” to achieve that task (McLeod, 2019). The final blue ring in the diagram is out of reach for the individual, only accomplished by a MKO (more knowledgeable other). These may be future goals, but steps need to be applied before reaching that level. It’s like a five year old trying to do a Sudoku puzzle. Maybe one day kiddo..

Lev Vygotsky

To move through the ZPD, educators are encouraged to focus on three important components which aid the learning process:

  • The presence of someone with knowledge and skills beyond that of the learner (MKO)
  • Social interactions with a skillful tutor that allow the learner to observe and practice their skills
  • Scaffolding or supportive activities provided by the educator, or a more competent peer. (From McLeod, 2019).

The scaffolding aspect was never mentioned by Lev, but it is usually incorporated in the educational theory. The scaffolding will be discussed further, but it is noted that this is a model for tutors to observe student understanding and adjust intervention levels as needed. “A scaffolding ZPD approach provides an explanatory framework for tutoring practice and a basis for further research” (Nordlof, 2014, p.45).

Scaffolding and ZPD

Vygotsky was a social learning theorist, and believed much important learning by the child occurs through social interaction with a skillful tutor (McLeod, 2019). “The child seeks to understand the actions or instructions provided by the tutor (often the parent or teacher) then internalizes the information, using it to guide or regulate their own performance” (McLeod, 2019, p.2). It was Wood, Bruner, and Ross (1976) that incorporated the term scaffolding with ZPD. “Scaffolding consists of the activities provided by the educator, or more competent peer, to support the student as he or she is led through the zone of proximal development” (McLeod, 2019, p.2).

One study produced by Wood and Middleton (1975) observed mothers assisting their 4-year-old child trying to build a model on their own that was too difficult to complete alone. The support received from the mothers varied from:

General encouragement-“now you go”

Specific instructions- “get four big blocks”

Direct demonstration- showing the child how to place one block on another.

Mother and daughters playing blocks on the floor in the living room at home.

The results of the study showed no single single strategy was best for helping their child to progress. Mothers whose assistance was most effective were those who varied their strategy according to how the child was doing (McLeod, 2019).

As the child progressed, the mothers became less specific with their help. When the child started to struggle, they increased specific instructions until progress resumed. “Scaffolding (i.e. assistance) is most effective when the support is matched to the needs of the learner. This puts them in a position to achieve success in an activity that they would previously not have been able to do alone” (McLeod, 2019, p.3).

The Point of ZPD and Scaffolding

One of the social interactions Vygotsky believed in is to provide cooperative learning exercises where less competent children develop with the help from more skillful peers. This is peer tutoring, and is very useful in the classroom. However, this isn’t always possible for many logistical reasons (e.g. time spent in class away from direct instruction, finding a competent peer tutor that is willing to help). Scaffolding is a useful feature of effective teaching, where the adult (tutor) continually adjusts the level of involvement in response to the learner’s level of performance. This could be modeling a skill, providing hints or cues, and adapting an activity to suit the level of the student(s). “Scaffolding not only produces immediate results, but also instills the skills necessary for independent problem solving in the future” (Silver, 2011, p.4).

From Mcleod 2019, A contemporary application of Vygotsky’s theories is “reciprocal teaching” used to improve students’ ability to learn from text. In this method, teacher and students collaborate in learning and practicing four key skills.

  • Summarizing
  • Questioning
  • Clarifying
  • Predicting

The teacher’s role is the process is reduced over time.

So where does this fit in with the role of tutoring? Let’s look back at this quote, “Scaffolding consists of the activities provided by the educator, or more competent peer, to support the student as he or she is led through the zone of proximal development” (McLeod, 2019, p.2). So it’s not the role of the tutor to lecture for the entire time, have the student take notes, or just ask questions and have them answered immediately. I have to include Piaget in this article because he’s one of my favorite theorists. He was huge into constructivism, which I’ll refrain from explaining in depth at this time.


HOT tasks= Higher-order thinking

So Piaget differed from Vygotsky in that Piaget supported discovery learning versus guided learning in ZPD. Even though I support many of other Piaget’s theories on learning, it appears that children assisted by their mother performed better at a certain task than children who worked independently.

Therefore, if the proper scaffolding procedures are in place, tutors may assist students in advancing in their zone of proximal development. With a little support and dynamic guidance to learning new information, students may progress from their comfort zones to higher levels that they never thought possible.

In the next article, I’ll discuss the best tutoring practices and how to improve your own teaching (tutoring) even if you’re a master tutor according to the literature (not by my advice).


McLeod, S. Zone of proximal development and scaffolding. Simply Extracted on April 18th, 2019.

Nordlof, J. (2014). Vygotsky, scaffolding, and the role of theory in writing center work. The Writing Center Journal (34.1), 45.

Silver, D. (2011). Using the ‘Zone’ Help Reach Every Learner. Kappa Delta Pi Record, 47(sup1), 28-31.

Wood, D., Bruner, J., & Ross, G. (1976). The role of tutoring in problem solving. Journal of Child Psychology and Child Psychiatry, 17, 89-100.

Wood, D., & Middleton, D. (1975). A study of assisted problem-solving. British Journal of Psychology, 66(2), 181-191.

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