Advantages and disadvantages of discovery learning

The discovery learning literature often claims the following advantages:
  • Supports active engagement of the learner in the learning process
  • Fosters curiosity
  • Enables the development of life long learning skills
  • Personalizes the learning experience
  • Highly motivating as it allows individuals the opportunity to experiment and discover something for themselves
  • Builds on learner's prior knowledge and understanding
  • Develops a sense of independence and autonomy
  • Make them responsible for their own mistakes and results
  • Learning as most adults learn on the job and in real life situations
  • A reason to record their procedure and discoveries - such as not repeating mistakes, a way to analyze what happened, and a way to record a victorious discovery
  • Develops problem solving and creative skills
  • Finds new and interesting avenues of information and learning - such as gravy made with too much cornstarch can become a molding medium
These sorts of arguments can be regrouped in two broad categories
  • Development of meta cognitive skills (including some higher level cognitive strategies) useful in lifelong learning.
  • Motivation

Most researchers would argue that pure discovery learning as a general and global teaching strategy for beginning and intermediary learners doesn't work. The debate on how much guiding is needed is somewhat open. See Kirschner et al. (2006) for a good overview (or Mayer, 2004; Feldon) and also Merrill's first principles of instruction model that does promote unguided problem-based learning at the final stages of an instructional design.
Typical criticisms are:
  • (Sometimes huge) cognitive overload, potential to confuse the learner if no initial framework is available, etc.
  • Measurable performance (compared to hard-core instructional designs) is worse for most learning situations.
  • Creations of misconceptions ("knowing less after instruction")
  • Weak students have a tendency to "fly under the radar" (Aleven et al. 2003) and teacher's fail to detect situations needing strong remediation or scaffolding.
  • Some studies admit that strong students can benefit from weak treatments and others conclude that there is no difference, but more importantly they also conclude that weak students benefit strongly from strong treatments.
DSchneider thinks that despite very strong arguments (Kirschner et al., 2006) in disfavor of even guided discovery learning models like problem-based learning, the debate is still open. Most really serious studies concerned high-school science teaching. Now, science is very hard and indeed puts a very heavy load on short-term memory. In addition, in order to solve even moderatly complex problems a person must engage many schemas. If nothing is available in long term memory, the learner is stuck.

As an example, DSchneider (from his own experience) doesn't believe that object-oriented programming could be taught by a discovery approach. Making web pages on the other hand could. Students can incrementally work on their own projet and integrate independent concepts like HTML, CSS, Ergonomics, Style, Color etc. on their own pace. A project-oriented approach to web page making probably also would be less effective than a strategy like direct instruction. On the positive side, students engaged in discovery with some scaffolding and monitoring provided by the teacher will learn to find resources, to read technical texts found on the Internet, to adapt a solution to their skill level (learn something about the economics), to decompose a problem, etc. I.e. they learn some skill that are probably transferrable to similar autonmous learning situation (e.g. learning SVG on their own). 


  1. Well here i would like to say you thanks for sharing this informative educational information with us actually i want to ask some QandA about education for my studies !!!

  2. I haven't looked into this much, but a possible factor to consider is how teachers have been trained. For years, teachers have been trained to tell students the information and engage the class in what they're teaching. Personally, I get more stimulated when I'm discovering something for myself. Trying to solve the puzzle. That's my view on it.

  3. I am a student teacher and what I have seen so far is the lack of support for basics materials needed in classes, the demand to have a high passrates in the students and a disconnect with the ministry of education objectives and the teacher's objectives. It lead to much frustration.


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