Kirschner’s article on minimally guided instruction

August 4, 2013 — 5 Comments

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 Ernst

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Father of two boys, husband, mathematician, cyclist, trail runner, rock climber, and coffee drinker. Columnist for MAA blog Math Ed Matters.
  • If you repost this on G+, add the following line to be included in the Selected Papers Network:

    #spnetwork doi:10.1207/s15326985ep4102_1 #mathEducation

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  • François, thanks for the suggestion. I had already posted this on G+, but I went back and added it after the fact.

  • I read one of these papers a while ago, and I found Derek Muller’s interview with Sweller very helpful ( Here are my thoughts:

    1. Sweller et al mostly make a lot of sense to me. I find it really useful to look at worked examples, and so I have been trying to intentionally include a lot of them throughout this past year (and thanks for reminding me to include them this year. In fact, you helped solve several of my problems by posting this, Dana).
    2. However, I get the impression that Sweller might mainly be concerned with low-level skills. I agree that if students need to learn to take derivatives of polynomials, we should show them some examples (although I might tell them to use the definition of the derivative first so they can make an educated guess). But I don’t know how this relates to high-level skills. On the other hand, I cannot think of many high-level examples right now, and Sweller seems to be skeptical that there are a lot of these “thinking skills” that one can teach. Since he has thought a lot more about this than I have, I will (temporarily) defer to him. But I speculate that his goals for a course and mine might be different.
    3. It does seem like the anti-minimally guided instruction bit is a straw man (and he says as much, although he claims victory on this), at least as far as college-level teaching goes. He is basically anti-“discovery learning.” I have never heard of any college instructor doing a pure discovery learning course. IBL seems to be as close as it gets, although that is highly structured.

    • Matt

      The straw man point is, I think, a really important one. I don’t know of anyone who uses a style of instruction that is described in that paper. There have also been a number of published responses to the Sweller et al. paper which I found to be particularly useful in thinking about the issue. I think their response to the commentaries is worth reading, but I think the commentaries themselves are at least as important.

  • Matt, thanks for your comment. I’ve discovered that I’m a bit late to the game on this one. I missed all the excitement when this all took place a few years ago. I still haven’t finished reading the original paper yet, let alone the responses.