Why Use Guided Discovery Problems?

Initial Publication Date: September 15, 2009

Guided discovery problems can be fun, which, all by itself, may be a good enough reason to use them. But, perhaps more importantly, well-designed guided discovery problems are nicely aligned with research findings on how students learn science.

As stated by the National Research Council (2000, Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards , p. 116-120):

  1. Understanding science is more than knowing facts.
  2. Students build new knowledge and understanding on what they already know and believe.
  3. Students formulate new knowledge by modifying and refining their current concepts and by adding new concepts to what they already know.
  4. Learning is mediated by the social environment in which learners interact with others.
  5. Effective learning requires that students take control of their own learning.
  6. The ability to apply knowledge to novel situations, that is, transfer of learning, is affected by the degree to which students learn with understanding.

In summary, mastery of science content requires deep conceptual understanding, which must be actively constructed by the learner. The learner must fit any new concept into his/her pre-existing framework of knowledge, reconstructing the logic steps that lead to and make sense of the new concept. Some students (like many of us academic types) may naturally do this while listening to lectures or reading texts, but most students don't, often because it never even occurs to them to do so, or because they think they can't do it, or because they truly are unable to do so without help. So for most students, the active construction of knowledge must be explicitly facilitated by the instructor.

One effective way to do this is with guided-discovery problems, which are inherently engaging because they take advantage of the brain's natural attraction toward progressive tasks, each with just the right degree of challenge (witness the tremendous popularity of computer games with their multiple levels of difficulty). Students not only learn the concepts; they also learn that they are capable of logically, step-by-step, working toward the solution of a scientific puzzle even if, at first glance, the puzzle seems unsolvable. Moreover, guided-discovery problems are especially effective at challenging and overcoming a major block to learning: students' misconceptions and naive preconceptions.

Some of these misconceptions and naive preconceptions are amazingly common. Thus you can specifically address them in guided-discovery problems. Below is a list of some especially common misconceptions and naive preconceptions that I have encountered in my students.

Examples of Common Misconceptions and Naive Preconceptions

  • The mantle consists of magma.
  • Tectonic plates = crust.
  • Convection requires the input of heat.
  • The cause of plate motion: tectonic plates are transported by horizontal currents in the mantle, like rafts floating down a river.
  • Plate boundary locations are fixed over time.
  • During an earthquake, the entire plate moves rapidly, as a rigid block.
  • Volcanic gases come from the atmosphere.
  • Crystallization always involves drying.
  • Metamorphism requires melting.
  • As sediment settles to form a layer, the smallest particles settle on the bottom of layer and the largest settle on top (that's what happens when you shake a bag of potato chips, right?).
  • The moon's phases are caused by Earth's shadow.
  • The seasons of the year are caused by variations in Earth's distance to the sun.
  • The equator is warmer than the poles because it's closer to the sun.
  • Lower density materials contain more "air" than do higher-density materials.
  • Heat rises simply because that is what heat does.
  • Materials that rise buoyantly through other materials do so because they are "stronger."
  • Materials expand when they cool (analogy: water expands when it turns to ice).
  • Global warming is caused by the hole in the ozone layer.