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Minimal Guidance and Direct Instruction July 9, 2010

Posted by Editor21C in Primary Education, Secondary Education.
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From Dr José Hanham

Direct methods of instruction are often linked to the concept of ‘explicit teaching’. In this post, Dr Hanham argues that direct instruction is a very under-utilised form of teaching, which is clearly necessary to enhance understanding and learning independence, and to provide children with the foundations to be able to pursue more independent forms of learning.


Over the past five decades there have been many prominent educational thinkers (e.g., Bruner, 1961) who have hypothesized that students learn best through minimal instructional guidance. Minimal guidance generally refers to teachers constructing learning contexts in which students are encouraged to discover and construct essential information for themselves. This approach to instruction has taken various guises, including discovery learning and constructivist learning. In contrast to those who advocate the use of minimal guidance approaches, there are a growing number of educational researchers who suggest that novice learners learn best through direct instruction. This approach involves the teacher providing students with information that fully explains the concepts and procedures that they need to learn. In terms of student learning, which is the superior approach – minimal guidance or direct instruction?

The most reliable indicator through which to answer this question is to refer to the empirical literature. Evidence obtained from a range of highly controlled experimental studies suggests that direct instructional approaches lead to deep levels of learning (e.g. Moreno, 2004), whereas minimal guidance approaches tend to be ineffective and largely inefficient (see Mayer, 2004 for a review).

So why can minimal guidance be largely ineffective? Theorizing about minimal guidance instruction emerged at a time (1960s) in which we knew very little about the workings of the human brain and human memory. Current research on human memory suggests that our short-term memory, which is the component of our memory that we use to process new information, is very limited in capacity and duration. In fact, latest estimates suggest that most learners can only process 2 to 3 elements of new information in their short term memory at a time (Sweller, 2004). Research informs us that if learners are not given direct instruction when learning new information, they tend to engage in inefficient problem-solving process such as trial and error or means-ends analysis (Sweller, 1999). These problem-solving approaches impose a heavy cognitive tax on an already limited short-term memory.

Direct instruction, on the other hand, allows the learner to circumvent most of the limitations of short-term memory. For example, providing novice learners with worked examples rather than problem-solving exercises has shown to be a particularly powerful and efficient method for enhancing student learning. Because learners are provided with schema of how to solve a problem, they avoid having to engage in unnecessary trial and error processes.

To end, it is important to emphasise that direct instruction only works to a certain point. Once learners begin to acquire a sufficient degree of knowledge in a particular learning domain, providing these learners with direct instruction can lead to redundancy and expertise-reversal effects. It is at this point that learners should be provided with minimal instruction.


Bruner, J. S. (1961). The art of discovery. Harvard Educational Review, 31, 21–32.    Mayer, R. (2004). Should there be a three-strikes rule against pure discovery learning? The case for guided methods of instruction. American Psychologist, 59, 14–19.  Moreno, R. (2004). Decreasing cognitive load in novice students: Effects of explanatory versus corrective feedback in discovery-based multimedia. Instructional Science, 32, 99–113. Sweller, J. (1999). Instructional design in technical areas. Camberwell, Australia: ACER Press.  Sweller, J. (2004). Instructional design consequences of an analogy between evolution by natural selection and human cognitive architecture. Instructional Science, 32, 9–31. 


José Hanham is a Lecturer in the Secondary education program at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. He specialises in educational psychology and youth studies.


1. Instructional Design and Human Cognitive Architecture « 21st Century Learning - August 12, 2012

[…] my previous blog (see Minimal Guidance and Direct Instruction – July 2010) I mentioned that educational theories, such as constructivism (Bruner, 1961), were […]

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