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September 1, 2011
Vol. 69
No. 1

Art & Science of Teaching / The Perils and Promises of Discovery Learning

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Unassisted discovery learning is perilous to student learning, but enhanced discovery learning can be a useful instructional tool.

In K–12 education, it's almost a cliché to say that discovery learning is superior to learning derived from direct instruction. After all, constructing one's own meaning must be more effective.
Unfortunately, research doesn't support the superiority of discovery learning over direct instruction, as cognitive psychologist and researcher Richard Mayer pointed out in 2004.More recently, a 2011 meta-analysis of 580 comparisons between discovery learning and direct instruction found that direct instruction is superior to discovery learning in most situations.
Some might interpret this as evidence that we should abandon discovery learning, but such an interpretation would be inaccurate. In that same 2011 study, the researchers reported on a second meta-analysis involving 360 comparisons of "enhanced" discovery learning with other forms of instruction. They found that enhanced discovery learning was superior to other approaches. These findings are consistent with what I have observed in classrooms.
A practitioner can take away two conclusions from these disparate findings: First, unassisted discovery learning is perilous to student learning; second, enhanced discovery learning can be a useful instructional tool.

What Is Unassisted Discovery Learning?

Unassisted discovery learning involves presenting students with a situation in which they must discover new content while receiving little, if any, assistance. Teachers might ask students to design their own experiment, invent their own strategy, or answer guiding questions.
For example, a science teacher might provide students with a brief demonstration of how perceptions of color change depending on the intensity of the light source and then ask them to design their own experiment to further examine this relationship. A mathematics teacher might challenge students to estimate the sum of two three-digit numbers and then ask them to invent their own strategy for doing so. Before showing students a video segment about how best to stretch a cramped hamstring muscle, a physical education teacher might ask students the following guided question: How would you need to modify this process for extremely cold temperatures?
In all these approaches, students are left on their own to learn the target content. Having students work with a partner who is no more knowledgeable about the content than they are doesn't help. Although students might learn about their reactions to unstructured situations, they probably won't learn content in more depth.

What Is Enhanced Discovery Learning?

Enhanced discovery learning involves preparing students for discovery learning and providing assistance along the way. Teachers make sure that students have the necessary knowledge to negotiate the nuances of the content. This might involve some direct instruction. For example, before asking students to consider how best to stretch the hamstring muscle in cold weather, the teacher might present a series of lessons that clarify basic facts about muscles and their reaction to changes in temperature.
Periodically asking students to generate ideas along the way and then explain their thinking is also an aspect of enhanced discovery learning. The teacher who asks students to generate their own strategy for estimating the sum of two three-digit numbers might present students with some problems to do as a whole class. A student might come up to the front of the room to work through the first problem, sharing his or her thinking out loud. The teacher might question students and help them formulate their thinking into general guidelines for estimation, such as "start by estimating th sum of the highest place-value numbers." As others come to the front of the room to work their way through problems out loud, students can generate and test more rules. Along the way, the teacher might also present worked examples—that is, problems that include a description of the estimation process used.
It's also beneficial to properly scaffold the discovery experience. The teacher who asks students to design their own experiments might organize her demonstration into small segments that gradually disclose the relationship between the intensity of a light source and perceptions of color. After each segment, she might ask students to hypothesize what's likely to occur as the light source becomes more or less intense and then ask students to generate mini-experiments to test their hypotheses.

An Approach That Makes Sense

When faced with the decision whether to use direct instruction or unassisted discovery learning, a teacher should opt for the former. However, if a teacher is willing to put time and energy into designing lessons that ensure that students have the knowledge needed to understand the content and that provide guidance and interaction along the way, then discovery learning can be a powerful learning experience for students.
End Notes

1 Mayer, R. E. (2004). Should there be a three-strikes rule against pure discovery learning? The case for guided methods of instruction. American Psychologist, 59, 14–19.

2 Mayer, R. E. (2004). Should there be a three-strikes rule against pure discovery learning? The case for guided methods of instruction. American Psychologist, 59, 14–19.

Robert Marzano is the CEO of Marzano Research Laboratory in Centennial, CO, which provides research-based, partner-centered support for educators and education agencies—with the goal of helping teachers improve educational practice.

As strategic advisor, Robert brings over 50 years of experience in action-based education research, professional development, and curriculum design to Marzano Research. He has expertise in standards-based assessment, cognition, school leadership, and competency-based education, among a host of areas.

He is the author of 30 books, 150 articles and chapters in books, and 100 sets of curriculum materials for teachers and students in grades K–12.

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