Fully Guided Instruction

21 November 2017

Author: Andy Tharby

In 2006, Paul A. Kirschner, John Sweller and Richard E. Clark wrote a seminal paper on the shortfalls of minimal instructional guidance. They followed this in 2012 with an article for American Educator‘Putting Students on the Path to Learning: The Case for Fully Guided Instruction’ – in which they explored the reasons why explicit teaching is usually a more effective approach than minimal guidance. This blog will provide a brief summary of the 2012 article and will explore its implications for day-to-day classroom practice.

The dispute between advocates of minimal guidance and advocates of explicit instructional guidance has rumbled on for more than half a century. Explicit instructional guidance occurs when teachers ‘fully explain the concepts and skills that students are required to learn’. This guidance might take the form of a teacher explanation, a lecture, a video, a computer presentation or a live demonstration. The information is explicitly taught and practised until help is gradually faded out. At this point, problems and tasks can be solved and completed independently.

Minimal guidance approaches, on the other hand, require students to ‘discover or construct some or all of the essential information for themselves’ – as opposed to being presented with the information beforehand. This approach has been given various names – including discovery learning, problem-based learning, inquiry learning and constructivist learning – and often involves situations where students attempt to mimic the behaviour of experts. For example, students in science lessons might try to discover fundamental scientific principles for themselves through investigations and experiments.

The article concludes that:

“The past half century of empirical research has provided overwhelming and unambiguous evidence that, for everyone but experts, partial guidance during instruction is significantly less effective and efficient than full guidance.”

There are two key evidence sources that support this position: research that compares the effectiveness of fully guided and partially guided instruction; and research on how human memory works.

Reviews of empirical studies on teaching new information show time and time again that minimal guidance is less effective than explicit guidance. For instance, minimal guidance approaches have been shown to:

  • favour the brightest and best prepared in the class;
  • lead to frustration for those who do not ‘get it’;
  • encourage disengaged or confused students to copy their peers;
  • lead to misconceptions becoming entrenched;
  • take more lesson time than explicit approaches;
  • increase the achievement gap between more-skilled and less-skilled learners.

Advocates for minimal guidance often claim that these approaches lead to students being better able to transfer their learning to new contexts. This hypothesis, however, is not supported by the evidence. Worryingly, studies also suggest that less-skilled students tend to prefer minimal guidance approaches, even though they are likely to learn less from them! Perhaps this is because they require less attention and concentration than focussed and explicit approaches.

Research into human memory provides the second set of supporting evidence. Put simply, the memory contains two components that work together to support learning: the working memory and the long-term memory. The long-term memory can be defined as a huge storehouse of vocabulary, concepts and procedures – from how to drive a car, to the meaning of the word ‘befuddle’, to the concept of multiplication. The human working-memory, however, is much more limited. It is the ‘space’ in which we think and process information.

In recent years, scientists have shown that the long-term memory is ‘the central, dominant structure of human cognition. Everything we see, hear, and think about is dependent on and influenced by our long-term memory.’ When students are working on a task – be it reading, writing, solving a maths problem or throwing a ball – they are mainly relying on the representations of these experiences in their long-term memories. When we solve a new problem, we are not really working it out. We are remembering it.

This is because the space in the working-memory is so small. Almost all the information in the working memory is lost after 30 seconds and we can only hold on to a limited number of things at once – perhaps only two or three items depending on the level of difficulty. Long-term memories, however, can be brought back to mind when they are needed. If you know your times-tables, for instance, this knowledge can be employed to help in the solving of more complex problems without placing any extra stress on working memory. Therefore, the more developed our mental schemas – the vast repositories of concepts and procedures in our long-term memory – the easier it is to learn new information. Teachers can provide worked-examples to reduce the strain on the working memory. These are completed problems that students can refer to when they are completing a new problem.

There is, however, an important caveat to these findings: the ‘expertise reversal effect’. The more a learner knows about a topic, the less effective explicit guidance becomes. Experts, it turns out, do better with less guidance – whereas novices need much more.

Implications and questions for teaching and the curriculum:

  • Does your five-year curriculum support the sequential and cumulative building of long-term memories?
  • At what stage should working memory supports and scaffolds be faded out?
  • When in a lesson – or sequence of lessons – is a problem solving activity most likely to be successful?
  • How much new information can students grapple with at any one time?
  • How can we best cater for the differing levels of expertise in a mixed-ability class?
  • To what extent can worked examples be used across the curriculum? (How could they be used to support writing, for instance?)
  • To what extent do attempts to provide ‘challenge’ fail because they overload working memory?
  • Even though the evidence suggests that active cognitive engagement – the ‘construction’ of learning – can happen through ‘passive’ reading, listening and watching, why do many teachers feel uncomfortable with adopting an explicit teaching style?
Posted on 21 November 2017
Posted in: Blog, Evidence
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