Four of Paul Kirschner's most influential studies

We are very excited for the upcoming Festival of Education. InnerDrive has curated the Cognitive Science strand, which brings together leading researchers, teachers, trainers and educators to share their thoughts on the latest evidence in cognitive science. A real highlight of the day will be our own Bradley Busch, along with Jade Pearce, interviewing Paul Kirschner.

Paul’s work has had a huge influence on Teaching & Learning. So, we thought this is the perfect time to explore four of our favourite studies he has authored. These papers include:

  • How to give effective instruction in the classroom
  • Philosophical approaches in teaching
  • The impact of social media on academic performance
  • The influence of Cognitive Load Theory on collaborative working

Kirschner's work underscores the importance of aligning educational strategies with cognitive processes, cultivating enhanced and effective learning experiences for students. So, without further ado, let’s dive straight in and explore some of his most influential research…

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Giving Effective Instruction – 2006

A paper written by Kirschner and two colleagues compared two teaching approaches:

  • Minimally guided instruction (i.e., a type of “teaching” that encourages students to explore a problem or concept by themselves)
  • Explicit instruction (i.e., a method that relies on the teacher providing a step-by-step explanation of the material).

The article showed that more independent learning did not lead to better learning outcomes than explicit instruction from the teacher. In fact, it uses more student mental effort to figure out what and how to learn, leaving less mental capacity available for more beneficial learning activities.

The findings suggests that inquiry learning is neither effective nor efficient as an approach to Teaching & Learning. More recent research appears to show that if you plan to use inquiry or discovery learning in your lessons, it is best done after good explicit instruction.

Paul now asks the question: what happened to the discovery in discovery learning? This is very similar to Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction, which gives room to independent problem solving after (and only after) proper instruction.

Rethinking Science Education – 2009

There has been a big debate in education that has split teachers and researchers into two groups. One group believes in traditional teaching, advocating for classical, teacher-centred, knowledge-focused instruction. The other group propagates in a more hands-on approach, where learners construct their own knowledge through experiences.

In this paper, Kirschner reflects on how teaching in Science has evolved from simply memorising facts to emphasising the actual process of science. The goal is to give students experiences that mirror the work of real scientists.

However, he argues that there is a confusion between teaching Science as a process and using that process to actually learn Science (Scientists do science – learners learn science). Students, who are still in the learning phase, don't have the same knowledge and experience as scientists. Therefore, it's unrealistic to expect them to effectively discover what they need to learn on their own.

Instead, the paper suggests that explicit instruction in the classroom, where teachers provide clear explanations and guidance, can be more effective. In essence he says: The epistemology of the scientist doing Science shouldn’t be used as a pedagogy for learning Science.

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The Facebook Effect on Academic Performance – 2010

In 2010, Kirschner and his colleague Aryn Karpinski published a study investigating the effects of Facebook use on academic performance by questioning college students. The results showed that students who spent more time on Facebook got lower grades than those who spent less time on it and spend fewer hours per week studying than non-users.

This research has allowed educators to understand the importance of teaching students about responsible online behaviour. This includes setting expectations for how much time they should spend online, particularly when studying.

Harmonizing Minds in learning - 2018

Kirschner shed light on the influence of Cognitive Load Theory on groups to better understand how collaboration with others can affect learning. Cognitive Load Theory states that when students are processing too much information at once, their working memory can get overloaded, which in turn hinders learning.

Kirschner and his colleagues (one of whom was his daughter, Femke) looked at how the group dynamic of learning can affect the cognitive load of students and their ability to learn. Kirschner highlights that when learners collaborate on a task, they can experience a reduction in cognitive load because they “share” the load, thereby enabling them to learn more effectively. Additionally, they found that the collaborative process can also alter the way learners approach a task, which can further reduce cognitive load and improve learning outcomes.

Guided by Collaborative Cognitive Load Principles, teachers can strategise collaborative learning by considering:

  • Their students' cognitive abilities (expert or novice?)
  • Task complexity (simple vs. complex tasks?)
  • Group diversity
  • Helping groups mature into teams

Depending on the learning goal, you can make informed decisions, even opting not to use collaborative learning if it best serves your objective.

Final thoughts

Paul Kirschner's research has had a transformative impact on education. His findings have provided educators with evidence-informed insights into instructional methods, assessments, the influence of technology, and the benefits of collaborative learning.

We can’t wait to dig deeper and ask him more about them at the Cognitive Science strand at this year’s Festival of Education!

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