More Guidance, while Learning = More Better?

When we design novel learning environments we seem to focus on projects and other practical tasks that learners do with minimal guidance by instructors. For example, most MOOC courses offer instructional videos but the actual learning lies in your own hands. Educators in schools and higher education mostly follow this constructivist paradigm with learners being presented with goals and minimal information to learn by experience.

Kirschner et al. (2006) review this standpoint and argue that when dealing with novel information, learners should be explicitly shown what to do and how to do it. While this is a complete departure from the constructivist paradigm to a fully guided approach to learning. So let’s look at the arguments.

After a half-century of advocacy associated with instruction using minimal guidance, it appears that there is no body of research supporting the technique. In so far as there is any evidence from controlled studies, it almost uniformly supports direct, strong instructional guidance rather than constructivist-based minimal guidance during the instruction of novice to intermediate learners.

Cognitive Load Theory

Cognitive Load Theory (Sweller, 1988) is built on the model of human information processing, where incoming information is processed (or discarded) by the sensory memory, passed to the working memory. To pass information to the long-term memory it is rehearsed and categorized into Schemas, to structure knowledge. As working memory has a limited capacity, but the capacity is different for different types of cognitive loads:

  • Intrinsic cognitive load, based on the complexity and difficulty of the material
  • Extraneous cognitive load, based on representation and design of information in the material
  • Germane cognitive load, imposed by the actual learning process e.g. to understand the material

The goal of learning is to acquire schemas that structure knowledge in long-term memory, but Sweller (1988) argues that problem-solving by means-ends analysis where only the goal and current state are known imposes a high cognitive load on learners. At the same time problem solving and Shema acquisition mechanics are distinct.

Learning with minimal guidance

Learning with constructivist-based approaches can lead learners to become lost and frustrated, which leads to misconceptions and false starts reducing efficiency are common. Directly Instructed Learners not only learn faster, but the quality is also better. (Klahr and Nigam, 2004) This means that they not only have better recall of facts but also better longer-term transfer and problem-solving skills. (Mayer, 2001) And even with considerable prior knowledge, guidance while learning is often equally effective.

When we learn in a context of problem-based search we impose heavy demands on working memory, which is then unavailable for learning. This means one can search for extended periods with minimal alteration to long-term memory. Learners must construct a mental representation or schema irrespective of whether they are given complete or partial information, so complete information usually leads to a more accurate representation of information. When lacking proper schemas to integrate new information, incomplete or disorganized knowledge has negative effects to build new schemas

One could argue that constructivist based learning approaches are based on the methods of scientific inquiry. But there has to be a clear distinction between learning a discipline and practicing a discipline. According to KyleJr (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.” So scientific inquiry cannot be equaled investigative learning.

Worked Example

A way to provide learners with strong guidance is worked examples. Here the cognitive load is reduced, even when steps to acquire solution are faded out (Faded Worked Example).
One has to be careful to fit the worked examples to the learners’ expertise. Described by the Expertise Reversal Effect(Sweller et al., 2011) a worked example can impose a heavy cognitive load for expert learners, based on their structure. As expertise learners are integrating new information in their existing long-term memory schemata, the form of the worked examples can hinder this integration. Tailored Fading of worked examples e.g. by instructional software, ensures that learners across skill levels learn best.


Paul A Kirschner, John Sweller, and Richard E 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):75–86, 2006.

David Klahr and Milena Nigam. The equivalence of learning paths in early science instruction: effects of direct instruction and discovery learning. Psychological science, 15(10):661–667, 2004.

William C Kyle Jr. The distinction between inquiry and scientific inquiry and why high school students should be cognizant of the distinction. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 17(2):123–30, 1980.

Richard E. Mayer. Multimedia Learning. Cambridge University Press, April 2001. URL:, doi:10.1017/cbo9781139164603.

John Sweller. Cognitive load during problem solving: effects on learning. Cognitive Science, 12(2):257–285, April 1988. URL:, doi:10.1207/s15516709cog1202_4. 1 2

John Sweller, Paul Ayres, and Slava Kalyuga. The expertise reversal effect. In Cognitive load theory, pages 155–170. Springer, 2011.

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