Confessions From a Supporter of Fully Guided Instruction

When I mention that I follow the fully guided instructional principles for teaching core-engineering undergraduate courses, many of my change-agent educators who have embraced the minimal-guidance approach figuratively roll their eyes with categorical disapproval. They feel as if I have singlehandedly turned back the clock on innovations in learning sciences.

The purveyors of the minimal-guidance approach expect students should discover and develop the fundamental knowledge of the course for themselves. After all, they as instructors are able to do that. So why can we not expect the students to do the same? This is what is called falling victim to the expert blind spot. As experts, instructors prefer to learn new knowledge with minimal formal guidance, but we need to acknowledge that students are novices. For students, explicit guidance works better and it need not be interpreted as spoon-feeding sessions or conjure images of straight 50-minute “talked at” lectures.

When I teach an engineering core course, I use the fully guided instructional method that includes deliberate practice and fast feedback. I provide guidance inside and outside of the classroom through multiple platforms such as digital audiovisual lectures, experiments, clicker and online quizzes, peer-to-peer interactions through in-class exercises, and 24/7 online-discussion boards. However, all these serve to enhance the fully guided instructional method and used only after the students are shown the concepts and walked through the procedural abstractions and examples.

For those who may think my opinion is anecdotal, I would highly recommend they read carefully the paper by Richard E. Clark and his colleagues, “Putting Students on the Path to Learning – The Case for Fully Guided Instruction” in the Spring 2012 issue of American Educator. Now before anyone screams that this is what would be expected of a publication from the American Federation of Teachers Union, it is important to point out that the paper is a summary of a 2006 article published in Educational Psychologist.

Well-designed and controlled experimental studies show that fully guided instruction is better than minimally guided instruction. The minimal-guidance approach is rife with issues such as students getting exasperated and lost, developing misconceptions and inefficient approaches to problem solving, and it's time intensive. How can a learner search for solutions when the learner does not know the relevant concepts she/he should be using to find one – a sure recipe for a cognitive overload when we are desperate to address the issues of multitasking? The minimal-guidance approach may seem to be successful amongst students who are bright and well prepared, and those who hire tutors to get the much-needed declarative and imperative knowledge. Should we not be more inclusive to reach all students?

Maybe there is a more inclusive way. It may be the Universal Design Learning (UDL) approach with its three underlying principles based on neuroscience research – 1) provide content in multiple platforms and contexts, 2) allow multiple forms of expression from students, and 3) offer multiple forms of engagement.

And, UDL implementation could be a topic for next time.

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