To evaluate whether explicit instruction followed by problem solving or problem solving followed by explicit instruction is more effective for later problem-solving performance, especially for procedures that are inherently complex.
Order of Problem Solving and Explicit Instruction
The debate between explicit/direct instruction and minimal instruction is longstanding in problem-solving education. Those who support direct instruction (i.e., explicitly telling the learner everything you want them to know) cite its efficiency for producing gains in problem-solving skills. Those who support minimal instruction (i.e., providing scaffolding to the learner to encourage them to construct problem-solving knowledge themselves) cite the enduring effects of building upon prior knowledge and development of other skills throughout the process. A subgroup has decided both types of instruction are important and now debates in which order learners should receive both types of instruction.
Traditionally, problem-solving-focused classes start with a lecture explaining procedures followed by problem-solving practice. Even flipped/blended classes that assign lectures outside of class and practice problem solving in class follow the instruction-then-problem-solving order. The issue that problem-solving-first advocates take with this approach is that the lecturer is one person with unique background experiences. How the lecturer learned and organized the procedure–and thus explains the procedure–might not be effective for all of the students in the class. Instead, they promote the productive failure approach, which asks students to attempt to solve problems that are particularly designed for someone with no formal instruction before they receive direct instruction. Productive failure, they argue, activates relevant prior knowledge, makes learners aware of gaps in their knowledge, and helps learners fill those gaps during instruction. The issue that explicit-instruction-first advocates take with this approach is that it often less efficient than instruction-first, and it overly taxes learners’, especially novices’, cognitive resources. The paper has a good explanation of how this works based on the concept of element interactivity from Cognitive Load Theory, but it’s a bit too technical for this summary.
This study specifically wanted to explore the effect that order of materials has on performance when the problem-solving procedure has high complexity (e.g., conservation of energy problems). It uses a randomized experimental design that alters only the order of materials. Using the same materials to compare problem-solving-first to instruction-first is difficult because problem-solving materials given before and after instruction are designed differently. Problems given before instruction are designed to support the exploration of the problem-solving space while those given after instruction are designed for students to practice using the procedure. To create a problem set that served both needs, the authors created a series of questions with similar features that allowed the problem-solving-first group to compare problems and explore the problem-solving space and allowed the instruction-first group to practice problem solving.
To assess performance, students completed two problem sets. The first set had isomorphic questions that used the same context as the instructional problem set with different values. The second set had transfer questions that used different contexts (e.g., heat energy vs. light energy). The experiment was conducted twice, once with the original conservation of energy procedure and again with a more advanced procedure, chosen to increase the complexity of the problem-solving procedure.
In the first experiment, instruction-first students outperformed problem-solving-first students on the isomorphic questions by a large margin, t = 2.25, p = 0.03, d = 0.56. There was not a statistical difference for the transfer questions, but the difference still had a large margin favoring instruction-first students, t = 1.89, p = 0.06, d = 0.47.
In the second experiment with the more complex procedure, instruction-first students again outperformed the problem-solving first students on the isomorphic questions by a large margin, t = 2.41, p = 0.02, d = 0.57. In this experiment, the difference was also statistically significant for the transfer questions, t = 2.35, p = 0.02, d = 0.56.
Why this is important
This carefully designed study advances our knowledge about the optimal order of instructional materials. It uses a theoretically-based, fully-randomized, ecologically-valid, and highly-controlled experiment to explore the circumstances in which instruction-first is more effective than problem-solving-first. As carefully as they designed the study, the authors explain its implications. While instruction-first was more effective for novices learning a complex procedure, they recognize that problem-solving-first might be more effective for procedures with lower complexity. As learners gain expertise, they need fewer cognitive resources to solve problems, so more advanced learners might excel with problem-solving-first. In addition, for learning that is lower in complexity, such as memorizing vocabulary words in a foreign language, learners might benefit more from trying to figure out the meaning of words first before being told the correct translation. Given the literature that supports both problem-solving-first and instruction-first, it is important to understand the circumstances under which one is more effective than the other.
Ashman, G., Kalyuga, S., & Sweller, J. (2019). Problem-solving or Explicit Instruction: Which Should Go First When Element Interactivity Is High?. Educational Psychology Review, 1-19.
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