Zone of Proximal Development

The zone of proximal development (ZPD) is “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined by problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers” (Vygotsky, 1978). In plainer words, this means that the ZPD refers to the space between activities that the learner can already do on their own, and activities that they cannot do even with help – activities in the ZPD are challenging for the learner but can be accomplished with the support of a more knowledgeable person. The more knowledgeable person might be a teacher, classmate, or anyone whose prior knowledge allows them to assist the learner. The interaction between the more knowledgeable other(s) and the learner(s) is a key component in constructing the learner’s new knowledge: “construction of knowledge occurs in an interplay between the learner and others, with the interdependence between the social milieu and the individual as key to a higher order learning process” (Sanders & Welk, 2005, p.203).

Why would it be important for educators to keep learning experiences within the student's Zone of Proximal Development?

If learning experiences are within the zone of what the learner can already do on their own, they will become bored. If learning experiences are outside the zone of what learners can do, even with assistance, they will become frustrated.

Watch the two brief videos below, and think about whether the learning that you’re seeing is happening in the zone of actual development (what the learner is capable of independently), in the zone of proximal development (what the learner is capable of with assistance from a more knowledgeable other), or beyond the zone of proximal development (what the learner is not yet capable of doing).

Is this learner within the ZPD?

No. The learning experience is beyond what she is capable of at this time, even with the support of a more knowledgeable other.

Is this learner within the ZPD?

Yes. She could not swim that distance on her own, but with the support of more knowledgeable others she is able to do it.


The educator, as a more knowledgeable other (MKO), is only one potential source of support for students. As such, the educator’s role is that of a guide. It is important that they arrange for the learner to have access to other sources of support such as their classmates and online resources.

“Vygotsky recognizes that a child’s development comes as a consequence of learning through observation, listening, and interacting with the people and elements in one’s immediate environment” (Wertsch and Hickmann, 1987). So, learning is mediated through cultural tools including technology, and online educators should utilize all tools to their disposal.

It is likely that the zone of proximal development will be different for various learners within a group. This means that the teacher must differentiate online learning experiences and provide students with choices in their learning so as to target the ZPD for each student, wherever that may be.

Authentic learning can only happen within the zone of proximal development. Therefore, educators must create an online space to communicate with their students and assess their current level of ability, so that learning experiences will be neither boring nor frustrating.

Because social interaction and communication with more knowledgeable others is a key part of learning, online educators need to incorporate opportunities for interaction all throughout their courses, in discussion forums, chat rooms, blogs, and more.


Zaretskii (2009, p.75) offered an example to further clarify the ZPD. If you have two fourth-grade students who can independently problem solve at the same level, their zones of proximal development may still be different. It may be that, with a more knowledgeable other to offer support, one student can solve fifth-grade problems whereas the other can solve eighth-grade problems. Their zones of actual development are the same, but the student who can solve eighth-grade problems with a more knowledgeable other has a deeper zone of proximal development than the other student. So not only must educators assess a student’s current capabilities, they must explore the depth of their student’s ZPD to be able to create learning experiences that challenge students accordingly.

What techniques could educators use to determine their students’ ZPD?


  1. David

    Great suggestions for ZPD. I often use a K.W.L. chart to get a sense of where students are before we start an activity.

  2. Craig

    Another way to determine a student’s ZPD is through a conference of teachers peers and professionals. I always find school-based team and IEP meetings to be informative because students respond differently in different classes. It is surprising to hear how a student may or may not be functioning in another setting, and what strategies work. School psychologists and doctors also help in this process. In an online environment, teachers could meet on a private LMS discussion space to have a similar conversation. The more opinions in the mix, the more rich the profile of the ZPD can be formulated


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