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Is This The Most Important Research Study Of The Year? Maybe


This month’s issues of ASCD Educational Leadership has just been published, and in it Robert Marzano reports on a study that may be the most important one that’s come out this year.

Here is a very simple summary of his study, which was a “meta-analysis” of hundreds of others: It found that “direct instruction” was a more effective instructional method than “unassisted discovery learning.” And it found that “enhanced discovery learning” trumped them both.

I personally think this idea of “unassisted discovery learning” is a bit of a “straw man.” It basically means that students have to learn on their own with very little assistance from a teacher. As example might be how I started a science lesson once on the scientific method — I gave students two cups — one half filled with water, and scissors and asked them to figure out how they would tell time with it. I call the issue a “straw man,” though, because I, and many other teachers, might start off a lesson like this (plenty of research has shown that the use of “novelty” like this is effective), I’m not convinced many would make the whole lesson “unassisted.”

What’s important, though, about the study, I think, is that it highlights that “enhanced discovery learning” was particularly effective.

Here’s how the study itself (you have to pay $12 to gain access to it) defined “enhanced discovery learning”:

…generation, elicited explanations, and guided discovery conditions. Generation conditions required learners to generate rules, strategies, images, or answers to experimenters’ questions. Elicited explanation conditions required that learners explain some aspect of the target task or target material, either to themselves or to the experimenters. The guided discovery conditions involved either some form of instructional guidance (i.e.,scaffolding) or regular feedback to assist the learner at each stage of the learning tasks.

That certainly sounds like the exact definition of inductive teaching and learning. a strategy which our school uses a whole lot, and about which I have written a great deal on this blog and in my books.

Plus, it gets the Marzano “imprimatur”!

What do  you think — am I exaggerating the potential importance of this study?

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.


  1. This study certainly fits with my experience and other research I’ve seen. I actually like the inclusion of the straw man because it cuts off the semi-inevitable “How can kids learn when teachers are too lazy to help them?” retort.

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  3. I think one problem with Inquiry based learning, problem based learning, constructivist learning etc. is that there often are not common understandings or proper professional development on what these terms actually mean. I think that there is often a misinterpretation that these types of learning environments do not provide guidance. If implemented properly, this is not the case.

    One book that has really helped me form my thinking on this debate is Constructivist Instruction Success or Failure Edited by Sigmund Tobias and Thomas M. Duffy. I would highly recommend this book if you are interested in thinking deeply about this topic.

  4. Thanks for shedding light on this study. It’s certainly worthy of a closer look by many and especially those of us who subscribe to this type of teaching. (my school is PYP/IB so we are similar to inductive teaching like you) I like how the study, and you, put the emphasis on the fact that the type of teaching we are talking about here is still one of discovery where students are working to construct their knowledge about a situation that they are experiencing. While some may call that “unassisted discovery learning” it is clearly different because it requires constant observation, interaction and feedback from the teacher like you highlight.

    I would argue that it is a very important study to use when trying to support and defend inductive/constructivist/inquiry type learning. The fact that it has a Marzano “seal of approval” is icing on the cake!

  5. I agree & appreciate the nuance in your observations — straw man, indeed! (more hay-making, here:

  6. So similar to our Knowledge Building in Action mission!

    Couldn’t agree more!

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  8. Its a good study, and you are right to highlight it. However, it assumes that the kind of teacher you need to do the right kind of scaffolding, is available. This (unspoken) assumption is incorrect in most places in the world, including the USA.

    If such a teacher is not available, then, clearly, ‘enhanced discovery learning’ is not possible. Under those circumstances we have three choices – use a traditional taught approach if you have that kind of teacher, at least. Or use ‘unassisted discovery learning’ or don’t encourage any kind of learning.

    Which one would you choose?

    • I believe that most teachers, particularly with adequate support and professional development, are fully capable of providing the kind of scaffolding needed to implement “enhanced discovery learning.” I think that’s borne out with the increasing popularly in the U.S. and elsewhere of inductive learning, project-based learning, problem-based learning, and inquiry-driven learning.

      In our own comprehensive high school in the inner-city of Sacramento, for example, we have an “enhanced discovery learning” curriculum taught by all of our English and Social Studies teachers.

      I agree with the findings of the research discussed in this post. I think the odds of successful learning are much, much higher with guidance from an educator is much, much higher than with a “sink or swim” perspective.

      There’s the old story of the father taking his son out to the woods. The father sees a deer first. Instead of pointing it out to his son, he leads his son in the direction so that the son can point the deer out to his father, instead. The excitement and energy the boy generates for himself by this discovery is much more likely to lead to an appetite for learning more than if the father had told him where to look, and the father is there to help the boy discover answers to questions he might have as well as ask the boy questions about what he is seeing (why do you think the deer is here at this time of day?; do you think there are others? why might this deer be alone?). Without his father’s guidance, the boy might, or might not, have seen the deer, and is more likely to be limited to only the questions he can think of himself.

      I’m certainly open to continuing this conversation…


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