Discovery-based learning


Design and plan learning activities and/or programmes of study

How students learn, both generally and within their subject/disciplinary area(s)

Use evidence-informed approaches and the outcomes from research, scholarship and continuing professional development

What can I do?

  • Provide work examples of tasks and activities before letting students have a go themselves
  • Scaffold learning so that students engage in more challenging and advanced learning as they progress
  • Avoid letting students 'discover it for themselves' - no structure is harmful

What is this about?

Imagine you're exploring a new land of knowledge. Guided discovery-based learning is like having a knowledgeable guide with you on this adventure. This guide gives you a map with clear directions and points out important spots to explore. They're like a friendly mentor, showing you the way and giving you helpful hints as you travel. This type of learning is structured and organized, helping you uncover new things step by step.

On the other hand, unguided discovery-based learning is a bit more adventurous. It's like setting out on your own to discover hidden treasures. You're like a curious explorer using your wits and creativity. Instead of someone handing you a map, you're making your own path by trying things out, experimenting, and stumbling upon insights. You become both the investigator and the adventurer, finding your way to the treasure trove of knowledge.

What's the evidence say?

Meta-analytical findings show that discovery-based learning that was guided positively benefitted learning (➕➕➕), versus different instructional approaches (including unguided and explicit instruction) [1]. Unguided/unassisted discovery-based learning (e.g., where students were left to their own devices) markedly harmed learning relative to explicit instruction (➖➖➖) [1]. Discovery-based learning approaches were particularly well suited for adult learners, rather than those who are <18 years old [1], likely due to cognitive load associated with this type of active learning. Moreover, learning domains that were geared toward motor/physical skills, verbal/social skills, computer-based skills, mathematics, and science demonstrated positive effects on student learning when guided discovery-based approaches were used [1].

What's the underlying theory?

Discovery-based learning is often grounded in a few key educational theories that highlight the importance of self-directed exploration and active engagement in the learning process. Here are two of the main theories that underscore discovery-based learning:

  1. Constructivism: Constructivism is a theory that suggests learners actively build their own understanding of the world by connecting new information to their existing knowledge and experiences. In the context of discovery-based learning, constructivism emphasises the role of the learner as an active participant in the learning process. Learners explore and make sense of new concepts and ideas by experimenting, reflecting, and integrating what they discover into their mental frameworks. This theory emphasises the importance of hands-on experiences, problem-solving, and critical thinking to construct meaning and knowledge.
  2. Experiential Learning: Experiential learning theory emphasises the idea that people learn best when they directly engage with their environment and interact with the subject matter. It's about learning by doing. Discovery-based learning aligns well with this theory because it encourages learners to immerse themselves in activities, experiments, and real-world scenarios. Through these experiences, learners gain practical knowledge and develop skills by grappling with challenges, reflecting on outcomes, and adapting their approaches. Experiential learning connects theory to practice, making learning more meaningful and relevant.

In both constructivism and experiential learning, the central theme is active engagement. Discovery-based learning promotes self-initiated exploration, critical thinking, problem-solving, and the application of knowledge in real contexts. These theories emphasise that learners are not passive recipients of information; they are active agents in shaping their own understanding of the world around them.

Where does the evidence come from?

The evidence comes from a good quality (➕➕➕) meta-analysis that included a substantial number of learners (>25,000 participants) [1]. There is likely some risk of bias in the primary studies included in this review and the heterogeneity score suggests some unexplained variations in the findings.


[1] 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. 

Additional Resources