Putting students on the path to learning

Putting students on the path to learning: the case for fully guided instruction’ made the case for fully guided instruction for anyone other than expert learners.  It claimed that students learned best when given guidance rather than enabling them through problem solving in groups to work out a solution. The paper also outlined the cognitive mechanisms behind learning and explained that working memory (short-term memory) is limited to around 30 seconds unless combined or anchored in long-term memory.  For example, if a novice was given a problem to solve, they would need to rely on working memory whereas experts have access to prior learning in long-term memory which is why unguided or partial guidance is more effective for experts.

The group had a lively discussion about effective teaching methods in University programmes and how these correlated with the paper as well as how to define a novice or expert learner.  The majority of participants had used problem-based learning (PBL) in undergraduate teaching but noted that this was mainly about consolidating learning, applying learning or contextualising information delivered didactically rather than discovering something new.

It was noted that students prefer a learning approach that was not best suited to them i.e. on the whole, less skilled students prefer less instruction whereas more skilled learners prefer more instruction even though they would each learn more if this were reversed.  Some discussion followed about whether these approaches provided ‘false’ confidence in learning and the importance of including some aspect to address building confidence as part of the learning process.

There was some disappointment about the research the paper had drawn on and how quickly it had dismissed teamwork and some theories such as constructivist learning theory.  It was also noted that some of the papers cited were contentious in their own field.

The group agreed that using different teaching methods to move up Blooms taxonomy was preferable in higher education i.e. giving students foundational knowledge and then the opportunity to apply this and be creative within an environment where they can make mistakes and learn from them.  If a teaching session was more focussed on skills development then minimal guidance would be justified; skills could include research, exploration, problem solving, creative thinking and independence.  It was also noted that active learning was not always verbal or shown through doing something but could be learning in a rich way by thinking.

The take home messages from the participants of the journal club at the end of the session were as follows:

  • To give more consideration to working memory when teaching and include small steps to build on existing long-term knowledge.
  • To recognise the value of both the exposure to knowledge and the opportunity to practice the problem solving of that knowledge.
  • No matter what form knowledge is imparted to students, they need to know how to apply it.
  • Students don’t always know the best way for them to learn – less skilled students prefer less instruction whereas they need more. They should leave that choice to the experts.
  • To focus on being aware of how much new information a student can hold (working memory compared to long-term memory).
  • Some learners try to find a short-cut to success and some constructivist methods allow students to take the short cut which is something we need to consider.
  • To consider what guidance means in the context of designing a project – no guidance versus minimal guidance and preparing first year students in designing a project.

Continue the conversation through our Yammer Pedagogy Journal Club.