Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work (Kirschner, Sweller & Clark)

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(2), 75-86.

In this article, the authors challenge supporters of “minimally-guided instruction,” — which includes discovery learning, problem-based learning, inquiry learning, experiential learning, and constructivist learning — on the grounds that such methods for learning are at odds with what is known about human cognitive architecture and processing. Furthermore, the authors point out to empirical studies that lend weight to their argument.

Learning – change in long-term memory.

Direct instructional guidance – the provision of information that fully explains the concepts and procedures; also includes learning strategy support.

According to the authors, the “minimally-guided approach” is present in discovery learning, problem-based learning [there is some dissent as to whether or not PBL advocates minimal guidance (Schmidt, Loyens, van Gog, & Paas, 2007)], inquiry learning, experiential learning, and constructivist learning.

“[Long-term memory] is no longer seen as a passive repository of discrete, isolated fragments of information that permit us to repeat what we have learned. Nor is it seen only as a component of human cognitive architecture that has merely peripheral influence on complex cognitive processes such as thinking and problem solving. Rather, long-term memory is now viewed as the central, dominant structure of human cognition. Everything we see, hear, and think about is critically dependent on and influenced by our long-term memory” (p.76).

“De Groot’s (1945/1965)work on chess expertise, followed by Chase and Simon(1973) ,has served as a major influence on the field’s reconceptualization of the role of long-term memory.

  • Expert chess players are far better able than novices to reproduce briefly seen board configurations taken from real games, but do not differ in reproducing random board configurations (also see Egan & Schwartz, 1979; Jeffries, Turner, Polson, & Atwood, 1981; Sweller & Cooper, 1985)
  • Expert problem solvers derive their skill by drawing on the extensive experience stored in their long-term memory and then quickly select and apply the best procedures for solving problems. Therefore, “We are skillful in an area because our long-term memory contains huge amounts of information concerning the area. That information permits us to quickly recognize the characteristics of a situation and indicates to us, often unconsciously, what to do and when to do it” (p. 76).
  • It then follows that “The aim of all instruction is to alter long-term memory. If nothing has changed in long-term memory, nothing has been learned. Any instructional recommendation that does not or cannot specify what has been changed in long-term memory, or that does not increase the efficiency with which relevant information is stored in or retrieved from long-term memory, is likely to be ineffective” (p.77).
  • “We know that problem solving, which is central to one instructional procedure advocating minimal guidance, called inquiry-based instruction, places a huge burden on working memory (Sweller, 1988). The onus should surely be on those who support inquiry-based instruction to explain how such a procedure circumvents the well-known limits of working memory when dealing with novel information” (p. 77).

The goal of instruction is to “give learners specific guidance about how to cognitively manipulate information in ways that are consistent with a learning goal, and store the result in long-term memory” (p. 77). However, problem-based searching makes heavy demands on working memory. Furthermore, working memory load does not contribute to accumulation of knowledge in long-term memory.

“Learners must construct a mental representation or schema irrespective of whether they are given complete or partial information. Complete information will result in a more accurate representation that is also more easily acquired. Constructivism is based therefore, on an observation that, although descriptively accurate, does not lead to a prescriptive instructional design theory or to effective pedagogical techniques (Clark & Estes, 1998, 1999; Estes & Clark,
1999; Kirschner, Martens, & Strijbos, 2004)” (p. 78).

There is a clear distinction between learning a discipline and practicing a discipline. “It may be a fundamental error to assume that the pedagogic content of the learning experience is identical to the methods and processes (i.e., the epistemology) of the discipline being studied and a mistake to assume that instruction should exclusively focus on methods and processes….Kirschner (1991, 1992) also argued that the way an expert works in his or her domain (epistemology) is not equivalent to the way one learns in that area (pedagogy). A similar line of reasoning was followed by Dehoney (1995), who posited that the mental models and strategies of experts have been developed through the slow process of accumulating experience in their domain areas” (p.78).

“According to Kyle (1980), scientific inquiry is a systematic and investigative performance ability incorporating unrestrained thinking capabilities after a person has acquired a broad, critical knowledge of the particular subject matter through formal teaching processes. It may not be equated with investigative methods of science teaching, self-instructional teaching techniques, or open-ended teaching techniques. Educators who confuse the two are guilty of the improper use of inquiry as a paradigm on which to base an instructional strategy” (p.79).

“Stronger evidence from well-designed, controlled experimental studies also supports direct instructional guidance (e.g., see Moreno, 2004; Tuovinen & Sweller, 1999). Hardiman, Pollatsek, and Weil (1986) and Brown and Campione (1994) noted that when students learn science in classrooms with pure-discovery methods and minimal feedback, they often become lost and frustrated, and their confusion can lead to misconceptions. Others (e.g., Carlson, Lundy, & Schneider, 1992; Schauble, 1990) found that because false starts are common in such learning situations, unguided discovery is most often inefficient” (p. 79).

“Cognitive load theory suggests that the free exploration of a highly complex environment may generate a heavy working memory load that is detrimental to learning. This suggestion is particularly important in the case of novice learners, who lack proper schemas to integrate the new information with their prior knowledge” (p. 80). [Tested immediate recall of facts, as well as problem solving skills and transfer].

Worked example effect – learners (esp novices) required to solve problems perform worse on subsequent test problems than learners who study the equivalent worked examples. (Sweller & Cooper, 1985; Cooper & Sweller, 1987; Carroll, 1994; Miller, Lehman, & Koedinger, 1999; Paas, 1992; Paas & van Merriënboer, 1994; Pillay, 1994; Quilici &
Mayer, 1996; Trafton & Reiser, 1993).

“Problem-solving search is an inefficient way of altering long-term memory…and overburdens limited working memory…In contrast, studying a worked example both reduces working memory load because search is reduced or eliminated and directs attention (i.e., directs working memory resources) to learning the essential relations between problem-solving moves. Students learn to recognize which moves are required for particular problems, the basis for the acquisition of problem-solving schemas (Chi, Glaser, & Rees, 1982).” (p. 80).

“The altered characteristics of working memory when processing familiar as opposed to unfamiliar material induced Ericsson and Kintsch (1995) to propose a separate structure, long-term working memory, to deal with well-learned and automated information” (p.77).

Conditions under which the worked-example effect is not obtainable:

  • When worked examples are themselves structured in a manner that imposes a heavy cognitive load
  • When the learners’ expertise increases (effect will decrease then reverse; expertise reversal effect)

“According to Elstein (1994) knowledge organization and schema acquisition are more important for the development of expertise than the use of particular methods of problem solving. In this regard, cognitive research has shown that to achieve expertise in a domain, learners must acquire the necessary schemata that allow them to meaningfully and efficiently interpret information and identify the problem structure. Schemata accomplish this by guiding the selection of relevant information and the screening out of irrelevant information” (p. 83).

“The epistemology of a discipline should not be confused with a pedagogy for teaching or learning it. The practice of a profession is not the same as learning to practice the profession” (p. 83).

“The emphasis on the practical application ofwhat is being learned seems very positive. However, it may be an error to assume that the pedagogic content of the learning experience is identical to the methods and processes (i.e., the epistemology) of the discipline being studied and a mistake to assume that instruction should exclusively focus on application.” (p. 84).

Responses to the article:

Schmidt, H. G., Loyens, S. M. M., van Gog, T., & Paas, F. (2007). Problem based learning is compatible with human cognitive architecture: Commentary on Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark (2006). Educational Psychologist, 42, 91–97.

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

One Response to “Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work (Kirschner, Sweller & Clark)”
  1. Emanuel Abraben says:

    Extraordinary piece that came at the right time as I enter teaching after a lifetime of professional practice as an Architect

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