During Susan Ruff’s talk in the IBL Best Practices Session that Angie Hodge, Stan Yoshinobu, and I organized at MathFest, she made reference to an article by Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark. The paper is titled “Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching” (PDF) [1]. As a practitioner and serious proponent of inquiry-based learning (IBL), I am extremely interested in what this article has to say. Here is the abstract:

Evidence for the superiority of guided instruction is explained in the context of our knowledge of human cognitive architecture, expert–novice differences, and cognitive load. Although unguided or minimally guided instructional approaches are very popular and intuitively appealing, the point is made that these approaches ignore both the structures that constitute human cognitive architecture and evidence from empirical studies over the past half-century that consistently indicate that minimally guided instruction is less effective and less efficient than instructional approaches that place a strong emphasis on guidance of the student learning process. The advantage of guidance begins to recede only when learners have sufficiently high prior knowledge to provide “internal” guidance. Recent developments in instructional research and instructional design models that support guidance during instruction are briefly described.

I intend to read the whole article, but haven’t read much more than the abstract. Here are few thoughts before I dive in.

When discussing the advantages of an IBL approach with people, I’ll often cite academic work that supports the claim that it is beneficial for students. For example, see the work of Sandra Laursen et al. located here. However, to be honest, despite my interest in seeing data that validates my own opinions, the reality is that I don’t do IBL because the research told me to. I do it because I’ve seen it work! My students tell me it works. Alright, to be fair, my students told me that my lecturing worked, too. But the types of comments I get now from my IBL students make it clear to me that something really good is happening. For example, read this. IBL may not work for everyone in all situations and I’m okay with that. If it stops working for me, I’ll try something different.

The first thought I had when I saw the title and abstract was, “what does ‘minimal guidance’ mean?” I certainly provide a lot less direct guidance in my IBL classes than I do than when I lectured, but is it “minimal”? I do my best to provide scaffolded guidance to my students and to set up a support network in a safe learning environment. This is crucial in my opinion. I’ll have to digest the whole paper to see what their take is.

It appears that there are several reflections and discussions of this paper online already. For example, go here, here, and here. In addition, Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark have written a response to criticism that they have received in their “Why Minimally Guided Teaching Techniques Do Not Work: A Reply to Commentaries” (PDF) [2]. I’ll try to read this paper, as well.


[1] P. A. Kirschner, J. Sweller, and R. 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, vol. 41, no. 2, pp. 75–86, 2006.

[2] J. Sweller, P. A. Kirschner, and R. E. Clark, “Why Minimally Guided Teaching Techniques Do Not Work: A Reply to Commentaries,” Educational Psychologist, vol. 42, no. 2, pp. 115–121, Apr. 2007.

Dana C. Ernst

Mathematics & Teaching

  Northern Arizona University
  Flagstaff, AZ
  Google Scholar
  Impact Story

Current Courses

  MAT 411: Abstract Algebra
  MAT 690: Genome Combinatorics

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