Discovery learning (also known as problem-based learning, inquiry learning, experiential learning and constructivist learning) hypothesizes that people learn best in an unguided or minimally-guided environment. That is, they learn best, NOT when they are presented with essential information, but when they discover or construct essential information for themselves.



A popular premise for this myth is that learning to solve problems is of utmost importance (which is indisputable) and that in order to achieve this goal we must use problem solving as the primary instructional method (which is not only disputable, but also misguided). Another, related premise is that the discovery of new facts and relationships through exploration and experimentation is of utmost importance in science and that in order to educate scientific thinkers we must use discovery learning also as an instructional method.

The discovery-learning myth has been adopted all around the world, by both educators and laypeople, primarily because discovery learning sounds so logical (in theory). Unfortunately, there is an incredibly large corpus of research showing that (1) minimally instructive methods tax the learner’s cognitive resources to such a large extent that learning is impeded, (2) solving problems in a domain requires first and foremost knowledge of/in that domain, (3) solving problems without the necessary prerequisite domain knowledge is difficult if not impossible and often leads to warped/twisted ‘knowledge’, misconceptions, and poor/weak problem-solving approaches, and (4) while inquiry is a fundamental method of scientists (because a scientist is someone who ‘knows’ and whom is in search of new knowledge), it is not a good learning method for most learners because most learners are not ‘junior scientists’. They simply don’t know enough to do good inquiry.


Strength of Evidence Against

The strength of evidence against the use of discovery is very strong. To put it simply, using minimally guided approaches does not lead to effective or efficient learning. Moreover, it does not lead to better problem solving or learning to solve problems. While it may be true that some learners eventually learn through minimally-guided instruction, the bottom line is that when designing instruction for learning, there are far better learning methods to use than discovery learning.

The use of discovery-learning methods completely ignores human working memory limitations (Kirschner, Sweller, & Clark, 2006; Sweller, 1988, 1999; van Merriënboer & Sweller, 2005, 2010) and any instructional procedure that ignores the structures that constitute human cognitive architecture will not be effective. The consequences of requiring novice learners to search for problem solutions using a limited working memory appear to be routinely ignored.

For novice learners, discovery learning should never be the primary instructional method employed, though it might be a long-term goal—preparing learners to handle increasingly more difficult problems. Effective educational methods should carefully and gradually help learners move towards this goal. First, learning designs should help learners gain knowledge about the learning domain, because new relationships can only be discovered when you know enough to know to look for. Second, such methods should help learners develop skills and cognitive strategies for systematically exploring and experimenting in the domain, using the rules-of-thumb that are useful in that particular domain. And finally, such methods should provide support and guidance during the discovery process, and only decrease support and guidance as learners gain more expertise and can actually discover new insights and/or connections on their own (van Merriënboer & Kirschner, 2007).

There are situations where discovery or problem-solving can be used and that is when the learner has gained a good deal of experience in a topic area. This is what Kalyuga calls the expertise reversal effect where providing an approach that works well for experts does not work at all or is even harmful for novices and vice versa. However, most learners are just that: learners (i.e., novices in an area) with little or no prior knowledge or experience. The mistake here is assuming that learners will learn key problem-solving skills on their own when presented with problems early in the learning process. What happens, as the research clearly demonstrates, is that most learners flounder.

Overall, the evidence shows that learning and instructional professionals should NOT use discovery-based learning methods as a way to design learning experiences, except perhaps in the rare instances where the learners are highly experienced with the targeted topic. Minimal instructional guidance leads to minimal learning (Kirschner, Sweller, & Clark, 2006).


Debunking Resources — Text-Based Web Pages


Debunking Resources — Videos


Debunking Resources — Newspapers & Magazines

  • None that we know of…


Debunking Resources — Peer-Reviewed Scientific Articles

  • Alfieri, L., Brooks, P. J., Aldrich, N. J., & Tenenbaum, H. R. (2011). Does discovery-based instruction enhance learning? Journal of Educational Psychology, 103(1), 1-18.
  • Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R. E. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist, 46, 75-86.
  • Klahr, D. & Nigam, M. (2004). The equivalence of learning paths in early science instruction: Effects of direct instruction and discovery learning. Psychological Science, 15, 661-667.
  • Mayer, R. E. (2004). Should There Be a Three-Strikes Rule Against Pure Discovery Learning? American Psychologist, 59(1), 14-19.


Debunking Resources – Supporting Research

  • Kalyuga, S. (2007). Expertise reversal effect and its implications for learner-tailored instruction. Educational Psychology Review, 19, 509–539.
  • Kalyuga, S., Ayres, P., Chandler, P., & Sweller, J. (2003). The expertise reversal effect. Educational Psychologist, 38, 23-31.
  • Kirschner, P. A. (1992). Epistemology, practical work, and academic skills in science education. Science and Education, 1, 273-299.
  • Kirschner, P. A. (2009). Epistemology or pedagogy, that is the question. In S. Tobias & T. M. Duffy (Eds.), Constructivist instruction: Success or failure? (pp. 144-157). New York: Routledge.
  • Sweller, J. (1988). Cognitive load during problem solving: Effects on learning. Cognitive Science, 12, 257-285.
  • Sweller, J. (1999). Instructional design in technical areas. Camberwell, Australia: ACER Press.
  • Van Merriënboer, J. J. G., & Sweller, J. (2005). Cognitive load theory and complex learning: Recent developments and future directions. Educational Psychology Review, 17, 147-177.
  • Van Merriënboer, J. J. G., & Sweller, J. (2010). Cognitive load theory in health professional education: Design principles and strategies. Medical Education, 44, 85-93.

Special thanks to Paul Kirschner for helping with this post.