More from the annals of Ed School, Dept.

In my Educational Psychology class, I gave a presentation on constructivism, showing the difference between minimal guidance, and guided instruction, and evidence that inquiry-based approaches are ineffective. The professor lauded me with praise afterward and said it really got her thinking, plus she really was intrigued with Singapore Math (which I used as examples of explicit and guided instruction).

A few minutes later, I overheard her saying to a student in the class:

“Direct instruction works well in the short term but there’s research that shows that over the long term, students who were taught with discovery learning retained more. They also did better on standardized tests over the years than students taught with direct instruction.”

But I got an A on the presentation.


UPDATE:  I contacted the professor to ask what particular research she was referring to.  Her response follows:

There isn’t just one study that shows this – there are several studies in different contexts. You can read about them synthesized here in the National Academies Press book, How People Learn  –

This book can be downloaded, which I have just done. Will let you know if I find anything of interest; stay tuned.


7 thoughts on “More from the annals of Ed School, Dept.

  1. Retaining more with inquiry-based learning as compared to the deep practice involved in direct instruction? What research, if any, do you think the professor was referring to?


  2. I read How People Learn a while back. It seemed quite sensible to me at the time, although I didn’t agree with all the ideas promoted. What it isn’t is a call to inquiry based instruction.

    For example, “If students had simply been given problems to solve on their own (an instructional practice used in all the sciences), it is highly unlikely that they would have spent time efficiently.” is not a call for inquiry. Nor is “People must achieve a threshold of initial learning that is sufficient to support transfer. This obvious point is often overlooked and can lead to erroneous conclusions about the effectiveness of various instructional approaches. It takes time to learn complex subject matter, and assessments of transfer must take into account the degree to which original learning with understanding was accomplished.”

    It also warns that “Information can become “context-bound” when taught with context-specific examples”, which is an indication that “problem based” learning really struggles with.

    I suspect the professor is confusing the book’s call for “student centred learning” with the other aspects of progressive education. But How People Learn is quite consistent that knowledge is fundamental, not skills, and that teachers need to actively teach.


  3. I downloaded and searched through How People Learn and there is no claim made nor reference to any research which shows students taught with discovery-based learning retain more in the long term. I could have missed it, but I’m fairly confident it’s not in at least this book. Discovery learning is referred to in the book as “inquiry-based instruction” and there are several references made to a 1998 paper by White and Frederiksen on “Inquiry, Modeling, and Metacognition: Making Science Accessible to All Students” that is ostensibly about a middle-school science curriculum the authors created using an inquiry-based pedagogical approach (and metacognitive processes) that aimed to benefit disadvantaged and low-achieving students. White and Frederiksen claim their curriculum improved student performance, but they did not measure long-term retention. You can read the White and Frederiksen paper here:

    I agree with Chester Draw’s comment that the How People Learn book does not call for inquiry-based instruction. In fact, I have found plenty of papers that find just the opposite — namely that discovery-based learning (a.k.a. constructivist teaching, minimally guided instruction, problem-based learning, experiential learning) for novice learners leads to lower understanding and retention compared to direct instruction. My experience teaching elementary and middle school students in supplemental math over the years also inform this belief. I use inquiry-based teaching methods, but sparingly because they are inefficient and then only after a pre-requisite level of knowledge has been taught first. The best papers I’ve found on the problems w/ pure discovery-based learning for novice learners are these:

    1. Kirschner, Sweller & Clark, “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(2), 2006:

    2. Mayer, Richard, “Should There Be a Three-Strikes Rule Against Pure Discovery Learning?”, American Psychologist, Vol. 59, No. 1, 2004:

    Click to access Should%20There%20Be%20a%20Three-Strikes%20Rule%20Against%20Pure.pdf


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