Discovery learning is a form of active learning which refers to various learning activities and class activities in which students work together in groups to discover a target principle or concept on their own through group discussion, explaining their answers to problems, or finding patterns in a set of data. Lectures are limited in scope, and more focus is on group discussion, and student-teacher and teacher-group interaction.
- Inductive grammar lessons, in which students are presented information about language forms and try to figure out the grammatical or pragmatic principles, forms, functions, or meanings involved.
- Invention activities, in which students invent something, and in the process discover a concept. The invention or task might directly relate to the target concept, or it might not seem to do so, but serves as a memorable analogy for the target concept. For example, in the zoo exhibit activity, students devise zoo exhibit cages with mice and squirrels that allow one animal to pass freely between two chambers while confining the other animal to one side. This serves as an analogy for teaching cell membrane permeability in biology.
- Students are given data about the IQs of two groups of people, blue people and green people. They must determine whether the data ranges in the two data sets are substantively different, and thus, whether the two groups are really different. This leads them to deduce statistics concepts like variance.
As for active learning in general, the following facts support the use of discovery learning.
- Full-length class lectures can impair deeper cognitive processing of the materials being presented, due to limitations of students' attention spans and working memory capacities.
- Activities with teacher-student and student-student interaction enhance students' interest, motivation, and attention.
- As students are challenged to work out concepts for themselves, better conceptual structures (schemas) are created in the mind, leading to deeper understanding, and longer retention of information.
- In working through problems themselves, they develop better problem solving and analytical skills
- Group problem solving not only enhances teamwork and social skills, but enhances motivation and interest among students.
The following are characteristics of discovery activities (Taylor et al., 2010).
- They are ideal for teaching more important, abstract, complex, and/or difficult concepts.
- Students work on the given problem in groups (3+ student) for 15-30 minutes.
- A facilitator (instructor) is present to guide students and keep them on task.
- Each group writes out the solution on blank paper (or posterboard, flipchart, or such).
- Each group may be asked to present their solution to the class.
- Such activities can be used in large classes. Larger groups can be formed, and certain groups will be asked to share their solutions.
- Alternate version: After each group develops its solution, each group explains its solution to one or two nearby groups.
- They give each other feedback, and may revise their solutions accordingly. (This is ideal for smaller classes.)
- The task is done ideally in class, but may be done outside of class.
- If you or your students are not used to complex group activities, it might be better to start with smaller, simpler groups activities, so you / they learn how to do group activities, before introducing invention activities.
- Taylor, J. L, Smith, K. M., van Stolk, A.P. & Spiegelman, G. B. (2010). Using invention to change how students tackle problems. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 9, 504-512.