One way to improve structured eLearning courses is to use less of the expository approach and more of a discovery approach. Expository learning is what people expect, which is that a course will present generalized concepts and principles followed by examples. So why not give them something different, based on inquiry learning instead?
In inquiry-based learning (some refer to this as discovery learning), things get flipped around. Learners are presented with examples first and are then asked to induce a generalized concept or they are asked to solve a problem with information they gather. Using this approach, questions are the catalyst for constructing knowledge.
Can it work for rapid development?
In the quest for rapid development, inquiry learning might need to be reduced when compared to the discovery learning possibilities you can imagine in a 3D virtual environment. Still, even a reduced approach can be motivating for adults, because it allows for self-direction and learner control—approaches adults are known to prefer. (See Characteristics of Adult Learners).
Expository versus Inquiry
Below is a simple example of an expository approach for teaching PowerPoint users about graphic formats. All the information is provided as statements, creating a more passive learning experience. Learner’s simply need to take the information and assimilate it into existing cognitive structures. The chance that they will remember all of it is not high.
On the other hand, the inquiry-based approach below is framed around a question and invites designs that allow exploration. Working in the context of a question creates a more active experience, because the learner must take information and apply it by making comparisons and evaluating information to answer the question. These types of cognitive tasks should increase retention. They also show a certain respect for the learner’s intellect. In the example below, the PNG Format button is selected.
Benefits of Inquiry-based Learning
When designed correctly, inquiry learning has some benefits over the expository approach because it:
- Mimics one of the natural ways that people learn, starting with a question and seeking an answer
- Promotes independent thinking
- Facilitates the construction of knowledge
- Can be used when learning alone or in collaboration with others
- Encourages learners to gather data and information before coming up with an answer
Much of the research that compares completely open discovery learning with structured learning does not result in performance improvements. It’s important, therefore, to use sound design guidelines with this approach. Here are some guidelines:
- Meet the needs of the audience. Consider the audience’s abilities and knowledge in the subject matter when designing inquiry-based learning. Ensure they will understand the questions and know how to go about solving a problem. Provide more assistance and structure to novices and decrease it for experts. Avoid the expertise reversal effect, which involves providing more assistance than is needed, increasing the demands on an expert’s working memory.
- Provide guidance. It’s important to provide some type of guidance during the inquiry learning experience, particularly for those less familiar with the topic. Due to the the limits of working memory capacity, too many resources might be used up with irrelevant details in an entirely exploratory approach. With guidance, however, mental resources can be directed at acquiring knowledge.
- Select examples carefully. If you are asking learner’s to construct generalized concepts and principles, choose examples that have similar relevant attributes. Ensure your examples also have a wide variety of irrelevant attributes, which will help learners form broad and accurate generalizations.
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