Article Summary: Wood et al. (1976) Role of Tutoring in Problem Solving


Explore the nature of the scaffolding process in which someone with more experience helps someone with less experience to complete a task that the less experienced person would not be able to complete on their own.

Key Elements of Scaffolding

Wood et al. argue that scaffolding is an essential part of human learning for a large range of tasks, such as communication and movement, but focuses on problem solving and higher-order skill acquisition. Within this focus, scaffolding

  • is provided in a social context by an expert, instructor, or person with more experience to a novice or person with less experience
  • is individualized to the learner yet likely follows a common structure among learners
  • enables the novice to “solve a problem, carry out a task, or achieve a goal which would be beyond his unassisted effort” (p.90)
  • allows the learners to complete as much of the task themselves as possible (i.e., the expert does not model the complete task for the novice to observe and imitate)
  • controls the parts of a task or reduces a problem solving space that would inhibit the novice’s success so that the novice can focus on components within his capability.

Wood et al. hypothesize that scaffolding helps learners to master a task more quickly.

They also argue that learners cannot benefit from problem-solving scaffolding unless they can understand the solution, even if they are not yet able to produce the solution independently. Understanding the solution/goal is a prerequisite for receiving effective feedback. Therefore, in a scaffolded learning environment, the novice must be aware of the type of problem and appropriate solutions so that the expert can help guide the novice along the problem-solving procedure that connects the two by limiting the problem solving space and providing feedback.


The paper describes a study in which they taught 3-, 4-, and 5-year olds a problem-solving task (i.e., building a structure from blocks that interlock in unique ways). They equate these different age groups with learners’ capability to solve the problem with the 3-year olds representing early-stage learners, 4-year olds representing middle-stage learners, and 5-year olds representing late-stage learners. The three age groups required different types of scaffolding. The 3-year olds needed to be reminded of the task goal frequently and needed demonstration of correct technique frequently, as they would often engage in non-goal-oriented behavior. The 4-year olds needed more verbal correction than the other groups as they would often engage in goal-oriented behavior but not always get it right. The scaffolding for this age group was messiest because the tutor was more uncertain of the cause of learner errors and, therefore, more uncertain about how to support the learner. The 5-year olds needed more feedback that they were on the right track, but rarely needed help once they understood the task. Wood et al. argue that scaffolding would be irrelevant for a 6-year old.

Why this is important 

This paper is often cited as a foundational work in the scaffolding literature (almost 10,000 citations on Google Scholar). Based on their analysis, Wood et al. propose six scaffolding functions that are still relevant.

  1. Recruitment – gain the learner’s interest in completing the task correctly
  2. Reduction in degrees of freedom – simplify the task to match the learner’s current competence
  3. Direction maintenance – keep the learner on task and making progress
  4. Marking critical features – provide feedback on incorrect steps and important features of the task
  5. Frustration control – make the learning process less stressful while not creating a dependence on emotional support
  6. Demonstration – modeling portions of the task that the learner is unable to complete yet

Wood, D., Bruner, J. S., & Ross, G. (1976). The role of tutoring in problem solving. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry17(2), 89-100.

For more information about the article summary series or more article summary posts, visit the article summary series introduction.

One thought on “Article Summary: Wood et al. (1976) Role of Tutoring in Problem Solving

  1. Pingback: Article Summaries: Series Introduction | Lauren Margulieux

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