CTL Workshops on Active Learning

Over the last few weeks, the CTL has been leading workshops on active learning strategies. We’ve made this a part of our interdisciplinary fall programming, but we’ve also been hosting discipline-specific workshops.

In the most recent series, we have been demonstrating a framework for teaching and learning called guided discovery: an active strategy that introduces students to content or a principal by setting up the conditions that allow them to deduce, experiment, fail, and try again instead of “delivering” content to them through more traditional methods.

How does guided discovery work? How is it different than a traditional lecture? And what are the affordances and limitations to using this approach?

What is it?
Simply put, guided discovery is a technique in which an instructor…guides discovery!…instead of directly presenting content. This is usually accomplished by setting a clear context and then guiding students through some of the key principles of the content by using questions which students answer individually or in groups.

After students have had time to make connections on their own, they might do some peer instruction. Then, at the very end, instructors fill in the gaps to clear up any misconceptions and to make sure that students have met the learning objectives.

Does it work?
In this meta analysis of research that examined unassisted discovery (where learners work out the rules for themselves without any explicit instruction from the teacher), guided discovery, and more traditional instruction, unassisted discovery was shown to be the least effective. However, guided discovery — which included feedback, elicited explanations, and scaffolding — was shown to be even more effective than traditional models like pure lecture.

Affordances of guided discovery
When facilitated well, guided discovery can make learning more memorable, more motivating, and more interactive. With this approach, students can’t act as passive recipients of information. Instead, they must engage in explaining and making sense of the target concept. But they still have an instructor’s guidance as they do so.

Another advantage to this active approach is that it can be an especially effective way of coping with a class that has different levels of knowledge about a particular subject (so, all classes!).

Students who know more about the content can teach each other in fairly “controlled,” ways (thereby solidifying what they know). Students who don’t know the content can have a moment to take guesses and experiment with it before listening to an explanation from the instructor.

Finally, guided discovery — like many active techniques — can help to build community in your class. If you’re careful to switch up the groups and pairs of learners, students who might not normally get the chance to work together (or students who feel less comfortable speaking up during whole class discussions) can learn from each other.

Limitations of guided discovery
A common question: but what happens if students learn or reinforce the wrong information?

This is always a risk in peer instruction methods (like the ones advocated by Harvard physics educator Eric Mazur). Students who are particularly comfortable with speaking up or who have a lot of self-confidence can sometimes miss the key point, misunderstand a concept, and convince the peer who they’re “teaching” that the wrong answer is right. Especially when the question is difficult.

It might be comforting to know that this is actually pretty rare, though. In peer instruction tasks with right and wrong answers, peers with the right answer are generally more effective at convincing their incorrect peers to change their mind. Still, this underscores the importance of whole-class feedback and sufficient scaffolding.

Additionally, students who aren’t accustomed to the method can feel like the instructor is neglecting to teach them or that they’re being asked to “teach themselves.” If most of a student’s classes are instructor-centered, guided discovery can feel like a radical departure.

Just as you do whenever trying something new, it’s important to share your rationale with your students. Being familiar with the research and understanding your own reasons for trying a technique can help you to help your students get on board.

Want to try guided discovery?
CTL staff is available meet and discuss how to use these teaching strategies in your own classes. Feel free to contact us if you would like to explore the possibility of adapting any of these practices and/or if you have any other questions about teaching, learning, and pedagogical resources at Baruch.

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