November 17, 2010

Discovery learning only works well when there is guidance

Activating students to try out and discover things for themselves is a modern and great approach to education. It also fits very well with a solution-focused perspective. The idea is that discovery learning could be better than instructive explicit instruction because students are actively engaged and will feel competent and motivated when they find solutions themselves. Also, these solutions may be remembered better.

However, I sometimes feel that this approach of discovery learning is taken too far in practice. This is the case when students don't really understand how they should try out and discover things, and when they start off but get stuck early on yet receive no further help. Louis Alfieri and his colleagues have done a meta-analysis which shines a light on the relative merits of instructional and discovery learning. Here is the abstract:

"Does discovery-based instruction enhance learning?
Alfieri, Louis; Brooks, Patricia J.; Aldrich, Naomi J.; Tenenbaum, Harriet R.
Discovery learning approaches to education have recently come under scrutiny (Tobias & Duffy, 2009), with many studies indicating limitations to discovery learning practices. Therefore, 2 meta-analyses were conducted using a sample of 164 studies: The 1st examined the effects of unassisted discovery learning versus explicit instruction, and the 2nd examined the effects of enhanced and/or assisted discovery versus other types of instruction (e.g., explicit, unassisted discovery). Random effects analyses of 580 comparisons revealed that outcomes were favorable for explicit instruction when compared with unassisted discovery under most conditions (d = −0.38, 95%; CI [−.44, −.31]). In contrast, analyses of 360 comparisons revealed that outcomes were favorable for enhanced discovery when compared with other forms of instruction (d = 0.30, 95%; CI [.23, .36]). The findings suggest that unassisted discovery does not benefit learners, whereas feedback, worked examples, scaffolding, and elicited explanations do."

→ If I understand this well, guided discovery learning works well but unassisted discovery learning does not work and is, in fact inferior to explicit instruction.


  1. What this shows to me is that students actually need teachers and should not be left on their own in unstructured learning situations in the hopes that they might learn something.

    Discoery experiences are great but a student may not reflect upon these experiences unless directed to do so by a teacher.


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