Article Summary: Alfieri et al. (2011) Does Discovery-Based Instruction Enhance Learning?

Motivation: To contribute to the direct instruction vs. discovery learning debate with a meta-analysis that explores the nuances of the literature.

Discovery-based learning: Discovery(-based) learning is one of those terms that is better defined by what it is not (i.e., direct or explicit instruction) than what it is. I found Alfieri et al.’s general definition very helpful, though. They state that “discovery learning occurs whenever the learner is not provided with the target information or conceptual understanding and must find it independently and with only the provided materials,” (p. 2). Others would argue that the definition should be extended to include collaborative learning, especially because it is already pretty broad. Alfieri et al. go on to distinguish between unguided and enhanced discovery learning. They further break down enhanced discovery learning into three subcategories:

  • Generation – requires learners to
    generate rules, principles, strategies, etc.
  • Elicited explanation – requires learners to explain the task or instructional materials, either to themselves (i.e., self-explanation) or to someone else.
  • Guided discovery – the task includes instructional guidance (e.g., scaffolding or worked example) or formative feedback.

Results: They conducted two meta-analyses. The first compared unguided discovery learning to more explicit types of instruction. In this comparison, unguided discovery performed worse than explicit instruction (= -.38), especially in the domains of math, science, problem solving, and verbal and social skills, and especially for adolescents (compared to children and adults). This finding was not surprising given the criticism that unguided, or “pure,” discovery learning has received (e.g., Mayer, 2004; Kirschner, Sweller, & Clark, 2006).

The second analysis compared enhanced discovery learning to other types of learning, including unguided discovery and direct instruction. In this comparison, enhanced discovery performed better than other types of instruction (= .30), especially in math, computer skills, science, physical/motor tasks, and verbal and social skills. In this analysis, adults benefited most from enhanced discovery (compared to children and adolescents). Interestingly, the three types of enhanced discovery did not perform the same. Elicited explanation (= .36) and guided discovery (= .50) improved outcomes, whereas generation (= -.15) had no statistically significant effect.

Why this is important: One big takeaway from this paper is that enhanced discovery was more effective for adults than younger students, though all groups benefited from enhanced discovery. Alfieri et al. predicted that children might need more guidance during discovery learning because they have limited working memory (Kirschner et al., 2006), less experience in learning and domains (Mayer, 2004), and fewer metacognitive skills (Flavell, 2000; Kuhn & Dean, 2004). The results support this hypothesis and emphasize that younger learners need more guidance in discovery learning.

One surprising result was that generative discovery learning did not have the same benefits as other types of enhanced discovery. One explanation is that generating rules and strategies for a domain might ask too much of learners with limited domain knowledge. Alfieri et al. still argue that it is important to make sure that students are being constructive – that they are building an understanding of concepts rather than being told how to understand them (Chi, 2009). Being only active – actively moving around information without constructing understanding (Chi, 2009) – is not enough.

Alfieri et al. summarize their findings with a practical recommendation, “On the basis of the current analyses, optimal 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, or (c) tasks that provide worked examples of how to succeed in the task,” p.13.

Alfieri, L., Brooks, P. J., Aldrich, N. J., & Tenenbaum, H. R. (2011). Does discovery-based instruction enhance learning? Journal of Educational Psychology, 103(1), 1-18.

Chi, M. T. (2009). Active‐constructive‐interactive: A conceptual framework for differentiating learning activities. Topics in Cognitive Science1(1), 73-105.

Flavell, J. H. (2000). Development of children’s knowledge about the mental world. International Journal of Behavioral Development24(1), 15-23.

Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R. E. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist41(2), 75-86.

Kuhn, D., & Dean, Jr, D. (2004). Metacognition: A bridge between cognitive psychology and educational practice. Theory into Practice43(4), 268-273.

Mayer, R. E. (2004). Should there be a three-strikes rule against pure discovery learning?. American Psychologist59(1), 14.

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


One thought on “Article Summary: Alfieri et al. (2011) Does Discovery-Based Instruction Enhance Learning?

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

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