Learning by Discovery:

What amount of guidance leads to the best preparation for future learning?


In my math classroom, I found that students were most engaged when they were discovering mathematical concepts by themselves, rather than being told them through a lecture format. But, I've wondered whether it is the most effective way of learning. So, I ran a study in my Core Mechanics of Learning class at Stanford University, to explore how to best scaffold discovery learning. 


In each of our three experimental conditions, participants were presented with a variety of leaves that had been chosen by their membership in each of two categories - lobed versus not lobed and simple versus complex. In each of the conditions, participants were given all, part or none of the information regarding how the leaves were chosen. On a related learning task that participants took after examining the leaves, the more guidance participants were given, the better participants performed on the task. Our findings indicate that guidance during discovery learning increases performance on future related learning tasks and that participants learn better after a discovery learning activity.



Our findings on this experiment are encouraging. They validated my belief that discovery learning is an effective way to promote learning. And, as importantly, it gave me a framework to better understand what a student needs during a discovery learning experience. Experiences are most effective, this study shows, when learners are given scaffolds for their experience. 


Below, you can read my study in full.

©2015-20 Laura Pickel

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