How Much Guidance Should We Give Our Students?

How Much Guidance Should We Give Our Students?

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Image from Wikimedia Commons

By Megan Smith

Researchers and education scholars have been debating about the answer to this question for decades (1, 2). Some have suggested that novice learners should receive direct instruction. In other words, to learn best they need guidance, and instructors should provide full explanations of the concepts that students are required to learn along with learning strategies that are effective at producing student learning (for examples, see our Six Strategies for Effective Learning page). Others have suggested that novice learners will learn best when provided very little direction, and when permitted to discover the information for themselves. In other words, students should learn by doing. This approach is based in constructivism (1), a theory that people learn by constructing their own understanding through their own experiences and reflections upon those experiences. 

What is minimal guidance instruction?

Jerome Bruner (3) is often credited with introducing discovery learning in 1961; but, the concept of providing minimal instruction and letting students discover information for themselves has been called a number of different things, such as discovery learning, problem-based learning, inquiry learning, experiential learning, and constructivist learning. While there are certainly some nuanced differences among the various approaches, some have argued that they are very similar, if not the same approach (1, 2).

(To read about various learning theories and see how they are organized in relation to one another, check out this page, put together by a group of academics at Columbia University. See this blog to read a clear and concise description of the differences between inquiry-based and project-based learning.)

In the classroom, this can take many forms. For example, students might engage in chemistry labs, executing experiments on their own and discovering (or attempting to discover) principles of chemistry. Medical students might be required to discover medical solutions on their own while being presented with mock patients with common diseases.

What does the research say?

As popular as discovery learning approaches have been over the last half century, there is not a lot of research to support a minimal guidance approach. In 2004, Mayer published a paper titled, Should There Be a Three-Strikes Rule Against Pure Discovery Learning (1). In this paper, he reviews three decades of research and finds that, across the board, pure discovery approaches are often inferior to guided discovery. He concludes:

"My historical review of three research literatures -- teaching problem-solving rules, teaching conservation strategies, and teaching programming concepts -- does not offer support for pure discovery methods. Does this mean that constructivism is wrong? It certainly means that a doctrine-based aproach to constructivism does not lead to fruitful educational practice. The research in this brief review shows that the formula constructivism = hands-on activity is a formula for educational disaster." (p. 17, bold font added for emphasis).

In other words, students still need some guidance and should not be left to discover everything for themselves. Providing scaffolds, feedback, and other forms of guidance is essential, as many students may not be able to extract all of what they need to know from their own experiences without guidance. Similarly, Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark (2) state:

"Controlled experiments almost uniformly indicate that when dealing with novel information, learners should be explicitly shown what to do and how to do it. A number of reviews of empirical studies have established a solid resarch-based case against the use of instruction with minimal guidance." (p. 79)

So... no more active learning?

Does this mean we need to do away with all forms of active experiential learning? I don't think so.  I do think this means we need to be mindful that students aren't going to learn everything just by doing it themselves, and others have concluded that while pure discovery does not always work, guided discovery could be the way to go. I think it is likely that most teachers are using a form of guided discovery instead of pure discovery anyway. For example, see this blog where the author refers to pure discovery learning as a straw man.

I myself have embraced active or experiential learning projects in my college classes at Rhode Island College, with proper guidance of course! For example, in my cognition class, I have students complete labs online using CogLab, and then I provide the class data and ask the students to write brief lab reports in a shortened APA format. The goal is to teach the students how to write about research within our discipline. However, I do give the students individualized feedback on their papers, and we go over the main points that should be in each of the sections within the paper for the given lab. I require the students to look over their feedback -- some semesters I even give points to the students for writing a "feedback analysis" where they write what they need to do differently in their own words -- and then they are supposed to take what they learned from the feedback and improve their next lab paper. I see my students as learning by doing through this series of assignments, but with guidance and directed instruction from me along the way. In my Research Methods III class, enrolled with mostly senior and some junior psychology majors, the students participate in a learning experiment during class and then use lab time to analyze their own data and write a full research report. They also propose their own experimental research project with a literature review, proposed methods, and hypotheses about the data, as the final course assignment. An active capstone project similar to these is required of all psychology majors at Rhode Island College.

Image from Flickr - Laurie Sullivan

Image from Flickr - Laurie Sullivan

Bottom line

Just like with everything else in life, you can have too much of a good thing. Active, experiential learning can be used successfully, but along with guidance. We should use active experiential learning in moderation, and coupled with direct instruction utilizing effective evidence-based learning strategies to make sure our students, who are still novices in the discipline, can learn.

Read more about this topic in our Active Learning Digest and our blog post about good active learning in the classroom.


(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) 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 Psychologist, 41, 75-86.

(3) Bruner, J. S. (1961). The art of discovery. Harvard Educational Review, 31, 21-32.