Unassisted discovery learning is not the ideal way for children to learn, study says

iStock_000022973452XSmallMany educators have a nagging feeling that they should provide children with much more time for discovery learning, the learning that takes place when a child is free to explore and investigate and construct knowledge.

According to a new study in the Journal of Educational Psychology, there is little reason for educators to feel guilty about failing to provide students with more opportunities for unassisted discovery learning.

Based on 2 meta-analyses of 165 studies, researchers conclude that unassisted discovery learning has no benefits for learners. Tasks requiring invention and collaboration with a naïve peer also were shown to have no learning benefits.

Enhanced-discovery tasks in which students are provided with some direction and guidance in their explorations, however, do have benefits for students compared with instruction or explicit training.

The researchers say optimal enhanced-discovery approaches should include at least one of the following:

    a) guided tasks that have scaffolding in place to assist learners
    b) tasks requiring learners to explain their own ideas and ensuring that these ideas are accurate by providing timely feedback’
    c) tasks that provide worked examples of how to succeed in the task

“Overall, the effects of unassisted-discovery tasks seem limited, whereas enhanced-discovery tasks requiring learners to be actively engaged and constructive seem optimal,” the researchers write.

Participants in the 165 studies were of all ages, and some studies focused on adults. Adolescents were found to benefit significantly more from explicit instruction than did adults. An unexpected finding was that worked examples, a step-by-step demonstration of how to perform a task or how to solve a problem, benefitted learners to a greater extent than did direct teaching.

In the first meta-analysis, the researchers’ intent was to study the conditions under which unassisted discovery learning might lead to better outcomes than explicit-instructional tasks. However, instead they found that more explicit instructional tasks were superior to unassisted-discovery tasks.

In the second meta-analysis, researchers investigated under which conditions enhanced forms of discovery-learning tasks might be beneficial. Researchers compared enhanced discovery learning methods (i.e., generation, guided discovery, elicited self-explanation) with explicit instruction and unassisted discovery.

“Although direct teaching is better than unassisted discovery, providing learners with worked examples or timely feedback is preferable,” the researchers write.

Based on their review, researchers stress the importance of teaching learners how to be discoverers (e.g., how to navigate problem solving, attend to relevant information and efficiently use limited working memory capacity). The narrative of teaching is a conversation that is appropriated by the learner who subsequently uses that narrative teach himself/herself, the authors write. The steps and procedures of that script need to be taught by parents or teachers because they are part of the culture of formal education.

“Does Discovery-Based Instruction Enhance Learning?”, Louis Alfieri et al., Journal of Educational Psychology, 2011, Volume 103, Number 1, pps. 1-18.

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