Discovery, gamification and loosely structured #activelearning


Photo by Raul Petri on Unsplash

Following my previous post on gamification and active learning, it is worth giving thought to the extent that effective learning is guided or scaffolded especially around ideas like discovery learning. While it is hard to define, and the level of support can be wide-ranging, the literature agrees that in discovery learning the learner’s role is to discover the target information within the confines of the task and its material (Alfieri et al., 2011). Pertinent to this definition, therefore, are exploratory games and enquiry-based learning; in fact, it would seem to apply to most pedagogies associated with active learning.

I want to think about the viability of active learning and the different demands it puts on the teacher. For example, is throwing the learner in at the deep end with little structure and little support viable? If not, what does an effective support strategy look like in a facilitated paradigm? What is the teacher’s role in supporting discovery learning and other active learning strategies? What are the implications for the teacher’s workload when moving from the guided or directed paradigm to the active paradigm?

Kirschner, Sweller and Clark (2006) are fairly scathing about constructivism and its inadequacy in addressing the adverse impact of cognitive load on learning. They say, “The past half-century of empirical research on this issue has provided overwhelming and unambiguous evidence that minimal guidance during instruction is significantly less effective and efficient than guidance specifically designed to support the cognitive processing necessary for learning.” (p. 76) They admit that students with considerable prior knowledge (as found in higher education?) fair better in unguided situations, but there is a danger that even these students will “acquire misconceptions or incomplete or disorganised knowledge”. Unguided experiential learning based on practical or project work is presented as a binary rejection of “instruction based on the facts, laws, principles, and theories that make up a discipline’s content.” (p. 84)

Alfieri et al. (2011) respond with reference to Bok’s research (2006) which finds that most students are unable to recall the factual content of a lecture 15 minutes after it has finished. Recall, on the other hand, they say is extended when the students have been actively engaged and challenged through their own mental efforts. At the same time, the memorisation of information, or ‘factual knowledge’, especially in higher education, is over-rated when it can be checked instantly and when it is being updated continuously (Gonzalez, 2004).

Briefly, active learning in its many forms is concerned with developing the whole student – not only their knowledge, but also their attitudes, their self-awareness and self-belief. In all cases, the social constructivist position is not to throw the student in at the deep end. This is a misreprentation of active learning. Instead, it is to create an appropriately supportive learning environment. Discovery, exploration, experiential, problem-based, and other forms of student-centred active learning depend upon a carefully scaffolded learning environment in which structure and support are ever-present or within reach:

  • the tutor
  • peers
  • More Knowleadgeable Others (e.g. support staff, mentors, alumni, employers, friends, etc)
  • spatial parameters
  • material or digital guidance (including manuals, game rules)
  • feedback, clues and nudges, example problems
  • the student’s own prior experience and resourcefulness

Drawing upon these dimensions, then, the teacher’s role is to design the active learning situation by ensuring that the learning challenge and its support are clear, proportionate and accessible.

The implication for the teacher and their workload is that the time they dedicate to facilitating and supporting individuals, as well as the group as a whole, should not be underestimated. Indeed, this idea of facilitated and supported challenge defines the teacher in the active space. Alfieri et al. (2011) in their review of discovery-based learning, concluded that “Unassisted discovery does not benefit learners, whereas feedback, worked examples, scaffolding, and elicited explanations do.” In many ways, the attempt to paint the situation as being dichotomous is where the problem lies. As Nathan (2012, p. 125) highlight, by creating formalisms, education is prone to over-simplifying that which is essentially complex. There is a tendency in education to reify simplistic ideas of formality – a ‘formal first’ view. This is what our quality processes demand of us it seems, after all, how do you represent the nuances that make up the active learning experience for each and every student? The formal first articulation presents a “flawed view of learning and development for many students and in many content areas, its influence on instruction, curriculum design, and educational policy is far-reaching. The societal roots of FF are deeply ingrained and operate with little scrutiny… The FF view exerts significant influence on formal education but the view is misguided” (Nathan, 2012). This flaw is particularly evident in active and applied learning designs in which the value of experience-led learning is seldom given equal billing with codified scientific formalisms: the quantifiable or measured outcomes of learning.

The key message here is that clarity about, and support for, learning is critical in the design of discovery and active learning. We can think of this as looking after the signposts. The implication for the teacher’s workload when moving to the active paradigm is that the teacher needs to be ready to intervene and accessible, and this can be demanding especially in a self-paced and self-directed learning context. The implication of that is that the teacher provides a scaffold, not a crutch – their role is to nudge the learner in the right direction, pick them up if they fall, spot and correct misdirection, and importantly, foster a sense of communal support while recognising and celebrating personal and collective achievements.


Alfieri, L., Brooks, P.J., Aldrich, N.J. & Tenenbaum, H.R. (2011). Does discovery-based instruction enhance learning? Journal of Educational Psychology., 103(1), 1-18.

Bok, D. (2006). Our underachieving colleges: A candid look at how much students learn and why they should be learning more. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Gonzalez, C., (2004). The role of blended learning in the world of technology. Online:

Kirschner, P., Sweller, J., & Clark, R. (2006). Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 75-86.

Nathan, M. (2012). Rethinking formalisms in formal education. Educational Psychologist, 47(2), 125-148.

About Andrew Middleton

NTF, PFHEA, committed to active learning, co-operative pedagogies, media-enhanced teaching and learning, authentic learning, postdigital learning spaces. Key publication: Middleton, A. (2018). Reimagining Spaces for Learning in Higher Education. Palgrave.
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