Three learners – What instruction?

I’ve written previously about the differences between expert and novice learners. You may want to read this if you haven’t already, as it provides a good base for this post. 

For this post, I’d like to start with a question. We have three learners; what instruction is likely to be most beneficial to them?

  • An A’ level physics learner with ten A-A* grades, including GCSE Physics
  • A BTEC Level 2 Sport learner with a range of GCSEs at grade D or below
  • A Level 1 Automotive adult learner with no formal qualifications, but many years experience of working on their family and friends cars

Of course, the answer isn’t quite as clear cut as one would like to think. I want to highlight that there is no ‘best way’ to teach in FE, all of these learners are very different and will require a different approach. Let’s explore each learner with some suggestions as to what might be more appropriate:


  1. It can be assumed that the A’ level Physics learner will have a sound understanding of the foundations of Physics. They are moving towards developing ‘expertise’, so will have well structured schema in this subject. So how best will they learn?


Kalyuga et al propose a phenomenon known as ‘the expertise reversal effect’ which I have attempted to depict below. In essence, when we have a solid foundation of knowledge in a subject, we need less guided instruction. The reason for this is that studies exploring the effect of guided instruction on experts have shown a negative impact, with some theorising that it is due to a greater extraneous cognitive load (basically too much non-relevant information), interfering with existing schema. So with this in mind, providing learners with less guidance and more opportunity to work independent of the teacher on problem solving and inquiry based tasks may be more effective.



  1. With the BTEC Sport learner on the other hand, we can assume from their GCSE profile that their schema is less organised compared to the A’ Level learner. So how will they best learn?


They probably have little knowledge of sport studies in general and therefore will require more guided instruction. As I mentioned in my previous post, without sufficient prior knowledge, minimally guided instruction is largely ineffective. To enhance the guided instruction, one should attempt to use approaches that reduce the burden on the working memory. This might include taking advantage of the ‘dual coding‘, by providing learners with visual and auditory information, and through ‘chunking‘ the learning coherently.


  1. The adult learner poses a more complex issue. They are likely to have some structure to their schema around automotive through their experience of working with cars. There are however, likely to be some misconceptions and potentially ‘bad habits’ as a result of this experience. How best to approach these learners then?


Through any instruction, this learner is likely to experience what Waxer and Morton call ‘cognitive conflict’, which essentially means the uncertainty we have when faced with new information that contradicts what we believe already (our current knowledge and experience). In terms of instructional methods, Bell and colleagues found positive results in using a constructivist approach to teaching called ‘diagnostic teaching’. This type of teaching involves:

‘lessons typically begin with a problem that exposes the variety of students’ existing thinking. Students are then confronted with the cognitive conflicts that emerge from these different ways of thinking. New insights are constructed through reflective discussion, leading to deeper understanding. This approach is challenging for teachers but research shows that it develops connected, long-term learning in their students.’

This blog by Nick Rose finds conflicting evidence in the research for teaching cognitive conflict, showing the benefits of both minimally guided instruction (diagnostic teaching) and guided instruction. In light of this, I would argue that the abovementioned learner will require a combination of both types of instruction. In the first instance to correct misconceptions and clarify understanding, explicit guided instruction is recommended. The learner is not an expert and therefore needs to have strong foundations built and reinforced. Following this, they can challenge cognitive conflict through a constructivist approach such as diagnostic teaching.


Key to planning instructional design is knowing your learners. This isn’t a case of their learning style or any other nonsense about how they like to learn, nor is it about trying to make the learning activities more ‘learner-centred’ because it is in-vogue. Rather it is about finding out as much as possible about what the learners already know and how secure they are with this. If we can do this, it will assist us in designing effective instruction to maximise future learning – whether this be fully, or minimally guided.


6 thoughts on “Three learners – What instruction?

  1. Pingback: Less is more…
  2. Pingback: Journey

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