How we give instructions and information to students when they are learning new or complex information plays a key role in their learning. Is it better to be a "guide on the side", or should teachers take centre stage and give explicit instruction? Is it even possible to have a short simple answer to this question, or do a range of factors have to be considered?
We explored some fascinating studies and have identified a couple of key factors that might be worth considering…
Explicit Instruction vs Inquiry-Based Learning
Explicit Instruction is when a teacher gives clear, specific instructions to students on how to complete a task or an assignment. Research suggests that giving students explicit instructions is a very effective teaching strategy that can enhance student learning and understanding (so much so that one recent study was titled "The Dramatic Impact of Explicit Instruction on Learning to Read in a New Writing System").
It is often seen in contrast with inquiry-based learning. Advocates of inquiry-based learning sometimes point to how some of mankind’s greatest scientific breakthroughs have come as a result of inquiry/minimal guidance – think Newton discovering gravity when he saw an apple falling from a tree, or Archimedes' "eureka" moment in the bath. Unfortunately, this sort of approach: a) takes a lot of time (it took hundreds of years for mankind to wait for them to make their discoveries) and b) they were probably genius outliers.
The Research Supporting Explicit Instruction
For example, in one study, students had to create scientific experiments from which a cause and effect relationship could be established. Researchers compared explicit instruction to discovery learning. They found that students learned significantly more when they were given explicit instruction compared to when they took part in discovery learning.
Other research has also supported the idea that explicit instruction is more effective than discovery learning. One study suggests that when students were given worked examples, a form of explicit instruction, they performed better on mathematics tests after completing fewer practice problems. They also completed the test faster, with fewer mistakes and with less guidance from their teacher.
Another study suggests that when law students were given process worksheets with an optimised number of steps on how to prepare a plea, they outperformed students who did not receive a worksheet.
Overall, research has consistently found that explicit instruction is an extremely effective teaching strategy for enhancing student learning across a wide range of topics and subjects.
2 Things to Consider With Explicit Instruction
Despite the efficacy of Explicit Instruction, as always, there is context and nuance to consider. Two areas are worth considering:
- The level of the learner
The first thing to consider when using Explicit Instruction is the level of learner. The Expertise Reversal Effect is based on the idea that novices do not learn the same way that experts do. For novices, learning new information can be highly intimidating and sometimes overwhelming, as they do not have their own highly developed schemas to rely on.
For this reason, novices need to feel supported in the classroom so that they do not go into cognitive overload when trying to grasp new concepts and topics. One way to ensure this is by providing novices with explicit instructions, with research suggesting that this can dramatically improve learning.
On the other hand, experts have schema-based knowledge, which guides them through tasks with less need for external support. If they are given explicit instruction on top of this, there will be an overlap of information between the experts’ own personal schemas and experiences and the explicit instruction. Additional working memory resources will be required to decipher the best information to use which may result in cognitive overload and slow down the learning process.
Quite counterintuitively, this means that the best way to develop expert independent learners isn’t to give students more independent tasks. Instead, it may be better to give them very explicit instruction, and then over time gradually fade the support as their expertise develops. So in order to develop experts, it would appear that we shouldn’t just have our students "think like an expert".
- The type of task
One recent paper instructed students to mentally sort items into categories, using one of two different types of task:
- Rule-based tasks – These are simple and logical tasks. For example, all blue shapes must be placed in group 1, all red shapes in group 2, and all yellow shapes in group 3.
- Information-integration tasks – These are more complex tasks that require integrating different types of information at once, such as learning a language.
Students in each of these two groups were given either explicit instructions to complete the task, or not given any instructions at all. When they sorted an item into a group, they were all given feedback and told whether they performed the task correctly or not.
So, what did the researchers find?
- In rule-based tasks, explicit instructions improved students’ performance significantly, with around 20% better performance.
- In information-integration tasks, there was no significant benefit from explicit instruction.
Giving students instructions is a fundamental part of being a teacher. Evidence suggests that especially for novice learners, explicit instruction may be our best. Likewise, this may also be the case for a rule-based task. Overall it is generally a more efficient and effective form of teaching. But that being said it isn’t a blunt instrument. Consideration of when and how to use it is needed to maximise it.