Article Summary: Schwartz & Bransford (1998) A Time for Telling (Constructivism)


Activating prior knowledge is a powerful instructional tool, but students do not always have relevant prior knowledge to activate. This paper tests a method for developing prior knowledge that prepares students to learn from lectures and explanations. On a more theoretical level, it examines when during instruction it is better to support students’ exploration and construction of knowledge and when it is better to provide direct instruction.

Student Readiness to Learn

Numerous instructional models espouse the value of activating and building upon students’ prior knowledge during instruction to improve understanding and memory. This approach is effective when students have relevant previous experiences from their life but not enough knowledge to fully understand those experiences. Thus, they know what they don’t know, increasing their readiness to learn. For example, students who play in the woods near their house might be familiar with different leaf shapes and with the experience of having a poison ivy rash. These experiences make them ready to learn the distinguishing features of poison ivy, improving their understanding and memory of the information.

Schwartz and Bransford tackle the problem of students who do not have relevant prior knowledge. For example, how should you prepare students who don’t play in the woods to go on a camping trip and avoid poison ivy? If you tell them the distinguishing features and show them a picture, they’re likely to forget it or have difficulty distinguishing poison ivy from harmless plants. This is because what an expert would recognize as a distinguishing feature, based on experience with other similar features and an overarching framework, isn’t as distinctive to someone without experience. While an expert might describe poison ivy as having pointy leaves, a novice might think that all leaves are pointy.

Images of poison ivy, poison oak, poison sumac, and similar-looking plans.

Method and Results

To improve student readiness to learn, Schwartz and Bransford tested a method for giving students prior knowledge before giving them direct instruction. Before instruction, students were asked to analyze contrasting cases (e.g., pictures of poison ivy and virginia creeper) and to guess which features made them different. After analyzing contrasting cases is the appropriate “time for telling”, and students then heard a lecture about the cases and distinguishing features. This method of instruction was compared to three other methods:

  • reading about distinctions before hearing a lecture (i.e., direct instruction in a different medium),
  • summarizing a relevant text before hearing a lecture (i.e., direct instruction with active learning),
  • analyzing contrasting cases twice without hearing a lecture (i.e., constructive learning without direct instruction).

After one week, students who compared cases before hearing a lecture applied the concepts that they had learned to novel problems better than all other conditions. All conditions performed equally well on a fact-based test about the concepts that did not require applying the concepts to novel problems.

Why this is important

“A Time for Telling” is a seminal paper that has been influential in promoting the use of constructive learning strategies in education and has been widely cited and applied in a variety of instructional contexts. True to other work from the Learning Technology Center at Vanderbilt during this time, Schwartz and Bransford do not advocate for unguided constructivism or pure discovery learning. Instead, they discern when constructive methods are more or less effective than direct instruction by examining differences between experts’ and novices’ mental models and students’ readiness to learn from direct instruction. Their instructional technique is related to several instructional models, but two in particular stand out to me.

Related Instructional Models

Analogical Reasoning (Dedre Gentner and Keith Holyoak) – In analogical reasoning, students compare cases to identify the similarities between two different situations or concepts. These comparisons help students recognize structural similarities between seemingly disparate problems, allowing them to recognize structural similarities in new problems. Analogical reasoning is related to “A Time for Telling” because both involve comparing different cases, and both improve the application of knowledge to novel problems.

Productive Failure (Manu Kapur) – In productive failure, students attempt to solve a type of problem before being told how to solve the problem. Once they have come up with many solutions, which are often wrong or incomplete, they then receive instruction about how to solve the problems. Productive failure is related to “A Time for Telling” because both ask students to generate possible answers before they are told the correct answer. In both, correctness during the generation phase is not important because the primary goal is to build students’ prior knowledge and readiness to learn and the correct solution is taught later.

Schwartz, D. L., & Bransford, J. D. (1998). A time for telling. Cognition and Instruction16(4), 475-523.

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

One thought on “Article Summary: Schwartz & Bransford (1998) A Time for Telling (Constructivism)

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

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