The Impact of Guided Discovery vs. Didactic Instruction on Learning

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The Impact of Guided Discovery vs. Didactic Instruction on Learning

Elham Arabi is a lead instructional designer and learning consultant at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She advocates using evidence-based approaches in learning design and in her collaborations with subject-matter experts. Elham also works as a consultant with students who have learning challenges. She incorporates science of learning how to learn in her course designs. She is also doing her PhD in Interaction and Media Sciences. She is using practice-based research approach for her dissertation to bridge the gap between science and practice. 

Previous research has identified didactic instruction an effective approach for learners who lack prior knowledge. The evidence suggests that the degree of guidance should vary with the age of learners. Direct instruction can be more beneficial for younger learners (e.g., elementary and middle school children), whereas older ones gain more with non-directive guidance or guided discovery (1). Different research findings indicate that guided discovery is more effective than lecture-based instruction in that learners develop a deeper understanding of concepts and their underlying structure.

In their study, Schwartz and colleagues (2), proposed an alternative approach to didactic instruction in teaching simple concepts in classes. They argued that didactic teaching undermines the processes of discovery, but withholding the explicit instruction and allowing learners to discover by themselves enhance deep learning and increase transfer. They conducted two experiments to investigate this theory.

In experiment 1, the authors compared two groups of students: the first group invented solutions with contrasting cases to come up with the ratio of density before receiving instruction on the concept of density; the second group received the instruction first and then practiced with the same cases. The contrasting cases in this activity consisted of three levels of structure: 1) surface features which were irrelevant to the concept, 2) density or deep structure, and 3) ratio structure, which was the invariant under transformation across all the levels.

The authors conducted the study in two phases. In phase 1, Day 1, the first group received a directive asking them to invent an index and some examples of it. They were then asked to do the contrasting cases worksheets. The second group received the one-page instruction on the concept of density, with its formula and some worked examples. In Day 2, both groups were tested on the recall of information by drawing the structures in the worksheet within 10 minutes. The authors found that the second group did not recreate the deep structure, which indicated their understanding of the ratio structures, while the first group performed better. Further, both groups performed the same in surface feature recall.