What are Guided Discovery Problems?

Initial Publication Date: September 15, 2009

Deep down inside, why are you a scientist? I'll bet you will answer, "Because it's fun!" And what makes it fun? Why, it's the thrill of discovery, of course. Those "Aha!' moments are what keep us going as we spend tedious hours traveling to distant field sites, collecting and processing samples, entering data, making and plotting measurements, debugging computer models, and racking our brains trying to explain it all.

Through intriguing puzzles to solve, structured hands-on activities, carefully worded leading questions, crucial hints, and just-in-time presentations of information, guided discovery problems escort students step-by-step through the discovery process, giving them a tantalizing taste of the most delicious part of science.

Students working on guided-discovery problems, like true scientists, sequentially uncover layers of scientific information one step at a time and learn new concepts as they do so. To get a taste of a student's experience of guided-discovery problems, I invite you to complete the activity Altitude of the Moon, and # of Hours it is Up (Acrobat (PDF) 159kB Nov30 08) which explores a topic that may be new to you. This guided-discovery problem is included in Advanced Moon Project, a series of activities that I wrote for the CSU Chico Concepts in Earth and Space Topics course for future elementary school teachers. The advanced moon project activities build on prior activities on the phases of the moon and seasons.

Reflecting on the Guided-Discovery Experience

  • Could you solve the puzzle before completing the activity?
  • What question(s) in the activity led you to experience an "Aha!" moment?
  • Did you understand the answer to the puzzle after completing the activity?

Notice that this problem is structured so that it gives students the help they need in order to solve each puzzle without solving it for them. This type of help, called scaffolding (Hogan and Pressley, 1997; Hmelo-Silver and others, 2007 ), keeps students within their "zone of proximal development", the zone between what they can do on their own and what they can't do, even with help (Vygotsky, 1978). By working through a guided-discovery problem, students gradually expand what they can accomplish on their own, pushing their zones of proximal development further out into former "can't do even with help" territory. The scaffolding in this activity is accomplished by leading the students through a series of doable steps in which the task at hand is clear. Students are supported in their discovery efforts with simple graphs and illustrative diagrams. They are asked to answer specific questions and complete partial diagrams in a particular way. Only after completing a series of small steps are students asked the bigger overarching questions.