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Implications of discovery learning research for the design of flexible learning

Juhani E. Tuovinen
Monash University
The work reported in this paper sought to:

  1. examine the nature of discovery learning leading to a systematic framework for analysing research in this area,
  2. use the framework to organise research into the learning effects of discovery learning,
  3. develop an educational interactions flexible learning model, based on Moore's distance education interactions paradigm, and
  4. relate the discovery learning framework and research results to the design of flexible learning programs to facilitate the appropriate educational interactions.

The investigation into the nature of discovery learning led to the formulation of an eight-category taxonomy of discovery learning. Research in this taxonomy suggested a critical link between the cognitive load posed by the learning task and the amount of structure and assistance provided to the learner in a study program. A large cognitive load resulted in ineffective learning. The task cognitive load was found to depend critically on the element interactivity (complexity) of the task and the existing task schema of the students. The examination of the current paradigms of distance education suggested an educational interactions framework for flexible learning, involving the learners, the instructor and the content. The discovery learning taxonomy and research results suggest important design implications for flexible learning programs in the context of the educational interactions paradigm.


Many of the recent approaches to post-secondary education that argue the need to go beyond the conventional institutional offerings are termed flexible learning. The flexible learning models often involve 'student-centred' learning, 'autonomous learning', or similar approaches (James & Beattie, 1996; Johnston, 1999). These ideas are largely based on discovery learning principles, which have been strongly promoted since the 1950s and 1960s (Bell, 1991; Blanchette & Brouard, 1995; Bruner, 1959, 1961; Hammer, 1997) and often incorporated as underlying assumptions in constructivist literature (Greeno, Collins, & Resnick, 1996; Gruender, 1996; Phillips, 1995).

Unfortunately the meaning of discovery learning has been very poorly defined, for example, four reviews of discovery learning, (Dixon, Carnine, & Kameenui, 1996; Henson, 1980; Hermann, 1969; Wittrock, 1966) concluded discovery learning was a very nebulous concept.

Flexible learning could also be seen as an educational approach somewhere between the polar extremes of face to face learning and distance education. Paradigms developed for the distance education context may be adapted to deal with flexible learning. For example, the four-interactions model, proposed by Tuovinen (2000a) can be applied to the flexible learning context.

The main thrust of this paper is that these two lines of theoretical development can be combined, leading to an even more fruitful synthesis, with specific implications for flexible learning practice.

Meaning of discovery learning

What is discovery learning? Many views have been expressed about it. For example, to Bruner, the father of discovery learning, (1961, p.22) discovery learning essentially consisted of the learners processing available information so that they could 'go beyond the evidence' to gain new and novel understandings.
Figure 1

Figure 1: Discovery-reception learning continuum

Rote and meaningful learning

The eighth distinction is between rote and meaningful learning. For example, Ausubel et al. (1978) disagreed with equating rote learning with reception learning and meaningful learning with discovery learning as often implied in arguments for discovery learning. They made a strong case for separating these two dimensions, arguing that many examples of discovery have strong elements of rote in them, and that reception learning does not need to lack meaning. They examined the nature of rote and meaningful learning, coming to the conclusion that after rote learning the content is poorly structured and fragmented, whereas all types of meaningful learning lead to new information being well structured in memory and accessible for cognitive processing, such as problem-solving. Wittrock (1966, p.44, 46-9, 74) also supported Ausubel's contention that rote and discovery learning should not be treated as polar opposites, instead arguing for more careful definition of the independent treatment variables with less emotive labels.

A taxonomy of discovery learning

We may summarise these eight dimensions of discovery learning in a table. These eight dimensions can be used as a taxonomy to categorise discovery learning discussion and research (Tuovinen, 1999, forthcoming). This taxonomy indicates the wide variety of possible discovery learning permutations.

Table 1: Taxonomy of Discovery Learning Dimensions

Discovery learning dimensionBinary or continuum?
1. Discovery learning as means or end of learning?Binary
2. Discovery or reception learning?Continuum
3. Active or passive learning?Binary
4. Inductive or deductive learning?Binary
5. Amount of guidance?Continuum
6. Control of discovery process, student or teacher?Continuum
7. Individual or group discovery?Binary
8. Rote or meaningful learning?Binary

Moore 3-Way Distance Education Interaction Model

Moore (1989; 1996) proposed a model of distance education interactions. He distinguished three main types of interactions. They are learner-content, learner-instructor and learner-learner interactions.

Learner - Content Interaction
Learner-content interaction is one of the most fundamental interactions in any educational situations. The intellectual engagement of the learners with material which changes their understanding, attitudes, etc., is basic to all educational processes (Moore, 1989).

Instructor - Learner Interaction
Moore's second interaction category focuses on the instructor-learner interaction. Research indicates this dimension is vitally important for distance students without local teacher support (Braggett, Retallick, Tuovinen, & Wallace, 1995; Brown, 1996; Stephenson, 1997-98).

Learner - Learner Interaction
Moore's third interaction dimension, learner- learner communication, is recognized as an important factor for students' success in distance education (Benson & Rye, 1996; McGill, Volet, & Hobbs, 1997). There is a vast literature on group and collaborative learning outside the distance education context (Webb & Palinscar, 1996), which may be used as a basis for the development of learner-learner interactions, as well as the emerging literature on this issue in the distance education context (Chiappini, Chiccariello, & Gibelli, 1999; Freeman & Capper, 1998; Milter & Stinson, 1999; Ribbons & Hornblower, 1998; Spector, Wasson, & Davidsen, 1999).

4-Way Distance Education Interaction Model

Instructor - Content Interaction
A fourth dimension is not explicitly stated in the Moore 3-interaction distance education model, the instructor - content interaction. The instructor interacts with the content both before and during the course delivery. We are familiar with course writing before course delivery, but new technologies, such as the World Wide Web have made it easier to interact with the content during its delivery in distance mode. For example, a lecturer can change the Web content before and during the course if the course is presented using a Web database (Lynch, 1999).

4-Way Interaction Model

Taking a holistic view of the distance education interactions the four interactions may be combined in a single model (Tuovinen, 2000a) as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2

Figure 2: Four-way educational interactions model

The four-way educational interactions model developed for distance education may be applied to flexible learning contexts. Each of the four interactions represented in Figure 2 need to be addressed in planning, implementation and evaluation of flexible learning. Flexible learning emphasises student control of "when, what, where, how and at what pace they learn" (Johnston, 1999, p.46), rather than accepting the limitations in these dimensions in conventional face-to-face courses.

The ability of educational institutions to provide flexibility in all these dimensions is limited by a range of factors. For example, the ACTIONS framework for planning open or distance learning proposed by Bates (1995) incorporates seven dimensions which may limit flexibility of learning and student choice: Access (to technology), Costs, Teaching and learning, Interactivity, Organization, Novelty and Speed (of course/materials development).

Discovery learning and educational interactions

We can examine the implications of the findings categorised according to the discovery learning taxonomy for the four educational interactions.

Discovery - end or means?

When flexible learning programs seek to develop student capabilities in knowledge discovery as an end in itself, such as capability and commitment to life-long learning, or autonomous learning (Monash University, 1999, p.8), they may tend to assume that it is best to learn by discovery (Bruner, 1971). However, Ausubel et al. (1978, p. 543) contested this assumption, arguing that the supposed benefits of learning by discovery would transfer poorly between dissimilar contexts, the heuristic skills developed would be too narrow for general application, and that important key discipline concepts were more stable than were assumed. Thus a wider range of educational methods should be employed to develop independent discovery skills than discovery learning alone.

This suggests that if capability in discovery is one of the goals of a flexible learning program, the content-learner interactions need to be structured to explicitly seek to lead to better learner discovery abilities. The instructor-learner interactions may provide modelling of the discovery process (Ventimiglia, 1995, p.30), or other forms of coaching and direction.

Discovery vs. reception learning?

Although Bruner championed the discovery learning cause, he argued that existing knowledge and culture were not generally passed on by discovery. He wrote (1966, p. 101):

"You cannot consider education without taking into account how culture gets passed on. It seems to me highly unlikely that given the centrality of culture in man's adaptation to his environment - the fact that culture serves him in the same way as changes in morphology served earlier in the evolutionary scale - that, biologically speaking, one would expect each organism to rediscover the totality of its culture - this would seem most unlikely. Moreover, it seems equally unlikely, given the nature of man's dependency as a creature, that this long period of dependency characteristic of our species was designed entirely for the most inefficient technique possible for regaining what has been gathered over a long period of time, i.e. discovery."
Thus he relegated discovery learning to a minor role in education. This indicates that only a small share of the four educational interactions should be devoted to learning by student discovery. Active or passive?

Ausubel, Novak and Hanesian (1978, pp.122-123) analysed the nature of reception learning and showed that students are active during the acquisition of meaningful verbal learning. First, there is a judgement with respect to where the new material fits in the existing cognitive structures. Secondly, the earlier and the new information must be reconciled to make the new material fit the existing framework. Thirdly, the new information is recast to some extent to fit in with the learner's previous experience, vocabulary and ideational structure. Finally, if the new ideas do not fit an existing slot in the students' schema, the existing schema will need to be radically altered. Thus far from being a passive exercise, the reception of meaningful learning is necessarily an active process.

What does this suggest for flexible learning interactions? Firstly, it is important to identify if learners are sufficiently mentally engaged with the content. Mechanisms need to be employed to encourage flexible learning students to reflect on their own learning, e.g. use of study tasks, questions, reflective action guides (Rowntree, 1994), mental effort rating scales (Paas, van Merriënboer, & Adam, 1994), etc. in their off-line and online materials. The student mental activity level can also be monitored by the instructor and by the other learners, and their feedback to the learner can provide useful guidance and support for learning.

Secondly, the content structuring can be arranged to better engage students, especially when low mental engagement has been identified. For example, in teaching computer programming using the "lesson-worked examples-problems" sequence van Merriënboer found the students were not engaging adequately with the worked examples. So he combined the worked examples and problems into completion problems and the student engagement with the examples improved, since they needed to pay more attention to the earlier aspects of the problems in order to complete them (van Merriënboer, 1999, personal communication).

Inductive or deductive?

Rieber and Parmley (1995) compared inductive and deductive instruction in adult education. Their deductive learning condition was a computer tutorial followed by either structured or unstructured simulation on laws of motion. The contrasting inductive learning condition consisted of no tutorial, only either a structured or unstructured simulation. The tutorial plus simulation groups outperformed the inductive unstructured simulation group, but the structured simulation resulted in equally good outcomes. Thus staged inductive learning resulting from small incremental steps in understanding, where each following stage built on the previous one, was as effective as the tutorial followed by a simulation, but not significantly better.

This suggests that a number of carefully constructed computer assisted learning approaches using either inductive or deductive content-learner interactions can lead to equally effective learning, so long as the material does not incorporate too large inductive jumps. Perhaps if the inductive effort involved in, say, computer based learning exercises is very high, there may need to be more instructor-learner or learner-learner interaction to support the student learning.

Amount of guidance?

As discussed above, as the mental effort involved in content-learner interaction increases, the more instructor-learner or learner-learner support is needed by the flexible learning student. The mental effort involved depends on a number of factors. Two major ones are the content element interactivity and students' prior content knowledge. Element interactivity refers to the number of distinct learning elements and their interconnections a learner needs to consider simultaneously (Sweller, 1999, p. 24-27). Due to the limitations of the human working memory, complex content may overwhelm the working memory processing capacity and lead to deteriorating learning (Sweller, van Merriënboer, & Paas, 1998).

The prior knowledge or existing schema has also been found to affect learning significantly. For example, students who had 'seldom' or 'sometimes' used databases found exploration practice, a form of discovery learning (Tuovinen, 1999, forthcoming), equally effective way to learn complex, high element interactivity calculation field construction tasks with a new database as those students who used a highly structured "worked examples-problem solving" practice format (Tuovinen & Sweller, 1999). Thus as a flexible learning course is being developed, or taught, the students' mental effort needs to be monitored, and the instructor-learner or learner-learner interactions structured to provide maximum support during maximum need periods.

If an instructor identifies heavy mental effort while a course is taught, it should be possible to modify the content. This is only possible if effective student monitoring mechanisms are in place, e.g. automatically marked online diagnostic tests, etc., and the teaching mode incorporates the World Wide Web or some other flexible system, such as voicemail, that can accommodate changes during course delivery.

Control of learning - student or teacher?

In a review of research comparing computer control with learner control of learning via computer aided instruction Steinberg (1989) came to the following conclusions:

The results on computer learner control obtained from a meta-analysis by Niemiec et al (1996) contrast somewhat with the Steinberg (1989) and Yadrick et al (1997) conclusions. Niemiec, Sikorski and Walberg (1996, p. 169) concluded, "...overall comparative effects of learner control are slightly negative but near zero on the average. Moreover, learner control, notwithstanding much speculation to the contrary, does not appear to confer special benefits on particular classes or learners or under special conditions."

Thus the importance of instructor guidance via the structuring of the content, and implementing effective instructor-learner relationship is strongly supported by these findings.

Individual or group?

Lim, Ward and Benbasat (1997) reported on a study comparing the effectiveness of individual discovery with co-discovery, and found pairs of university students exploring the use of simulated computer electronic mail systems learned to operate the software better than students exploring alone. Similarly Okada and Simon (1995) found that paired discovery work in molecular genetics using computer simulation was more effective than individual discovery.

The above studies are some recent examples of the importance of learner - learner collaboration in discovery learning. As mentioned previously this and other evidence show how important the learner-learner dimension is in learning interactions, and now with Web discussion groups, listservers, email, chat rooms, videoconferencing, phone contact, audioconferencing, desktop videoconferencing, voicemail, etc. we can provide either synchronous or asynchronous forms of learner-learner interaction.

Rote or meaningful?

We saw earlier that the simple distinction between rote and meaningful learning equating to reception vs. discovery was demolished by Ausubel et al. (1978). They highlighted the importance of meaning in learning, whether it be reception or discovery learning. This conclusion has implications for the structuring of the content by the instructor, where the instructor must ensure it is meaningful to the learner. It also suggests the instructor-learner interaction must incorporate a diagnostic component, where the meaningfulness of the content to the learner is evaluated, and if found inadequate, then the instructor needs to assist the student to make the content meaningful.

In a similar way the learner-learner interaction may be structured to enable the students to support and challenge the meaningfulness of the content to each other. For example, reciprocal teaching (Palinscar & Brown, 1984; Rosenshine & Meister, 1994) can incorporate these challenge and diagnostic functions, and should be considered as an instructional option for evaluating and developing meaning in learning. Finally, if there are opportunities to make the content more meaningful by the instructor modifying it during the course, the fourth interaction becomes vitally important to the learning success.


Thus we can summarise the discussion in three propositions and four main conclusions:


This paper has proposed an eight-fold taxonomy for comparing discovery learning research and learning programs. An examination of the research on discovery learning employing these eight dimensions suggests discovery learning may have differential effects on students' cognitive load, and therefore on learning. It appears better targeted flexible learning programs may be devised by analysing the relevant aspects of the learning programs, participants, tasks, etc., using this approach.

The four-way educational interactions paradigm, based on Moore's distance education interactions model, provides a useful framework for structuring the application of discovery learning principles to improve flexible learning program design.

In summary, this paper has sought to integrate discovery learning research, flexible learning literature and an educational interactions model from distance education to provide helpful ideas for flexible learning.


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Author: Dr Juhani E. Tuovinen, Senior Research Fellow in Interactive Multimedia, Centre for Learning and Teaching Support, Monash University, Churchill, Vic 3842.
Telephone (03) 5122 6809 Fax 03 5122 6578 Email

Please cite as: Tuovinen, J. E. (2001). Implications of discovery learning research for the design of flexible learning. In L. Richardson and J. Lidstone (Eds), Flexible Learning for a Flexible Society, . Proceedings of ASET-HERDSA 2000 Conference, Toowoomba, Qld, 2-5 July 2000. ASET and HERDSA.

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