Which Should Come First: Problem-Solving or Instruction?

Which Should Come First: Problem-Solving or Instruction?

By Cindy Nebel

Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) classes have been the strong focus of discovery ( or constructivist, problem-based, active-learning) methods of instruction, certainly with some success (1). However, these inquiry-based methods have received a considerable amount of criticism and likely some combination of discovery and instruction is probably more effective (described by Megan here). Discovery learning could be combined with direct instruction in many different ways; today, we talk about which should come first – exploration or instruction and whether it helps to work in groups.

In a series of studies performed at the University of Louisville, Joanna Weaver and her colleagues (2) gave introductory physics students an activity to work on where they needed to solve novel problems either before or after they received a lecture. Here is what they did:

Physics students were given two activities:  a lecture that covered material about the calculation of electric potential and a worksheet in which they had to use prior knowledge of electric potential energy in order to solve problems related to electric potential. Admittedly, my knowledge of physics does not extend to this area, so below is the actual problem that was given to students in the study:

Image from cited source

Image from cited source

Students in a single class were randomly assigned to two classrooms. The instructor then gave the first group of students instructions for working on the activity in groups, then went to the other room and gave a 15 minute lecture and instructions for the activity, then back to the first room to give the lecture there. After all students had received the lecture and activity, they were brought back together in one room and were given the correct answers to the activity and an opportunity to ask questions. Next, they answered a short survey about their interest and enjoyment in the day’s activities and took a multiple-choice quiz which included procedural questions taken directly from the lecture and conceptual problems that required students to apply the procedures for calculation in order to demonstrate understanding of the underlying concepts.

The results of this first study showed that students performed equally on the procedural problems, but those students who received the activity first performed better on the conceptual problems. There was, however, no difference in interest or enjoyment regardless of the order of the tasks.

Image from cited source

Image from cited source

In the next study, Weaver and colleagues used different instructors in another semester and found very similar results, except in this subsequent semester, students who received the activity first reported that they enjoyed the learning experience more than those who received the lecture first.

In a final study, the researchers were interested in whether or not collaboration was the primary cause of the increased conceptual understanding. In this study, students all received the activity first, but this time they were randomly assigned to one of two conditions. In one condition, the students worked on the activity individually and in the other condition, the students worked in groups of 3-4. There was no difference on either procedural or conceptual questions between students who worked individually or in groups. However, those who worked in groups found the activity to be much more enjoyable.

Why Does Active Learning Increase Conceptual Understanding

Completing the activity first may have led to an increase in conceptual understanding for several reasons:

1)      Prior knowledge: Students are required to activate prior knowledge in order to complete the activity. This provides an opportunity for retrieval practice and elaboration, both of which are strategies that we advocate. By connecting new material to activated prior knowledge, students are likely creating a more organized and rich memory for the new material.

2)      Fluency: The activity-first condition is likely more challenging for students because they have not received the instruction for the activity. This difficulty reduces the feeling of fluency, which can lead to overconfidence in understanding. That is, if the activity feels easy, then students will likely put in less effort toward understanding the material because they feel confident in their knowledge. By giving the activity first, students struggle, feel less confident that they understand, and put forth more mental effort toward understanding during both the activity and lecture.

3)      Engagement: Engagement in this study is defined as interest and enjoyment. It is possible that the activity provides a certain amount of enjoyment for the students (although there was not a significant difference here in the first study) and that this increased enjoyment leads to greater motivation to stay on task throughout the class period.

Image from Pixabay

Image from Pixabay


There are a few limitations in this study that the researchers address and should be considered before making sweeping generalizations or recommendations. These materials were developed by instructors and may not apply to all classes and content areas. The quiz that was given in these studies was administered either immediately or within a few days of receiving the activity/instruction. It remains unclear whether the same effects matter in the long term. In addition, one difference between these two groups is when feedback is given. When participants worked on the activity, then heard the lecture, and then received feedback, they engaged in retrieval practice when hearing the answers, which may have improved their understanding. The other group heard the lecture, completed the activity, and received immediate feedback, requiring no retrieval practice from activity to feedback. So, while these data are compelling, there is certainly more research to be completed in this area.

Bottom Line

Active learning can be a great addition to classes. Even without increasing learning, higher engagement may keep students motivated (and likely improves evaluations of faculty in higher ed). Here are my recommendations for those interested in using active learning in the classroom:

1)      Try exploration before direct instruction. If you have the time, develop some activities that will require students to use prior knowledge to tackle the problems of the day. Split the class into groups to maximize their enjoyment and be sure to provide feedback after the activity.

2)      If you have physical constraints that make group work difficult, don’t worry about it. Individual work should not affect learning.

3)      Incorporate some aspects of active learning into your lectures! Most of the “reasons why this worked” listed above can be utilized during a lecture, without developing creative activities. For many instructors, time is a commodity, and time to develop quality activities that are engaging and rely on students’ prior knowledge may be difficult.

4)      Do consider prior knowledge. If students do not have the requisite knowledge to build on, these constructivist methods can actually hurt learning due to an increase in cognitive load (3).

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


(1)    Hake, R. (1998). Interactive-engagement vs. traditional methods: A six-thousand-student survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics courses. American Journal of Physics, 66(1), 64–90.

(2)    Weaver, J.P., Chastain, R.J., DeCaro, D.A., & DeCaro, M.S. (2018). Reverse the routine: Problem solving before instruction improves conceptual knowledge in undergraduate physics. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 52, 36-47.

(3)    Sweller, J., Kirschner, P. A., & Clark, R. E. (2007). Why minimally guided teaching techniques do not work: A reply to commentaries. Educational Psychologist, 42(2), 115–121.