What needs to come first: instruction or solving a problem?

I found this new meta-analysis via Jeroen Janssen and I think it will stir some reactions as it deals with an important question: what do you need to do first to teach your students something new? Do you first need to let your students solve a problem before giving them instruction (PS-I) or vice versa, first instruction followed by problem-solving (I-PS)? The answer is PS-I, but wait, do read on.

An important concept in the study is what is called Productive Failure (PF):

PF comprises an initial generation and exploration phase, affording opportunities for students to activate and differentiate prior and intuitive knowledge, to critique and refine representations and solution methods (RSMs) for solving complex problems. Since these problems are based on concepts students have not formally learned yet, such a problem-solving process very often leads to failure (in relation to a desired goal).

What do the authors conclude:

Results from our meta-analytic review hold important implications for teaching and learning. Our results suggest that preparatory problem-solving approaches with high design fidelity to PF might be a powerful way to design for long-term learning, especially for students’ conceptual knowledge and the ability to transfer their knowledge to other domains. Based on these results, we recommend that classroom cultures prioritize enculturating students into a sensemaking disposition via preparatory problem-solving approaches. Even when such approaches lead students to generate failed or suboptimal solutions, students’ relevant prior knowledge activation provides opportunities for teachers to show them limitations of this prior knowledge.

The researchers do note something interesting when looking at the different studies:

We found studies carried out in Asia and Australia to have higher effects in favor of PS-I, relative to those carried out in Europe and North America. Also, longer quasi-experimental interventions had higher effect sizes in favor of PS-I over I-PS, compared to experimental comparisons that often spanned a shorter duration. Our analysis showed that this could in-part be because quasi-experimental interventions had higher overall PF fidelity (especially for 6th to 10th graders and undergraduates comprising the majority).

Will this study end the debate? I’m sure it will not. But very interesting work by Tanmay Sinha and Manu Kapur.

Abstract of the meta-analysis:

When learning a new concept, should students engage in problem solving followed by instruction (PS-I) or instruction followed by problem solving (I-PS)? Noting that there is a passionate debate about the design of initial learning, we report evidence from a meta-analysis of 53 studies with 166 comparisons that compared PS-I with I-PS design. Our results showed a significant, moderate effect in favor of PS-I (Hedge’s g 0.36 [95% confidence interval 0.20; 0.51]). The effects were even stronger (Hedge’s g ranging between 0.37 and 0.58) when PS-I was implemented with high fidelity to the principles of Productive Failure (PF), a subset variant of PS-I design. Students’ grade level, intervention time span, and its (quasi-)experimental nature contributed to the efficacy of PS-I over I-PS designs. Contrasting trends were, however, observed for younger age learners (second to fifth graders) and for the learning of domain-general skills, for which effect sizes favored I-PS. Overall, an estimation of true effect sizes after accounting for publication bias suggested a strong effect size favoring PS-I (Hedge’s g 0.87).

2 thoughts on “What needs to come first: instruction or solving a problem?

  1. So, if I am correct. Two important factors are at least relevant. There must be high fidelity in the design concerning the problem solving approach and it is important to reflect on the outcome of problem solving process afterwards in the instruction

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