How Well Do We Learn From Experiential Or Inquiry Learning Approaches?

How Well Do We Learn From Experiential Or Inquiry Learning Approaches?
Branislav Nenin/
Summary: Do workers learn best from experiences such as case studies, simulations, or scenarios? Or do they learn best from presentation of content with practice activities? What is the best way to teach people to handle workplace hazardous materials incidents, for instruction?

Experiential Or Inquiry Learning: How Well Do We Learn From Such Approaches?

Direct instruction directly teaches the content. People are supplied with content and activities that help them build needed background knowledge. And we make sure that what they know is correct and usable. Indirect approaches use experiential or inquiry methods that prompt discovery of needed information and often simulate and test performance.

Training people to identify hazardous materials in the workplace, for example, would likely have lessons, labs, and tests in a direct approach. In an experiential approach, people would likely work through scenarios or case studies.

Paulo Freire, a learning theorist, disapproves of what he calls the “banking model of education,” where teachers (or trainers or instructors) deposit information into students’ heads. Learning sciences clearly shows that we cannot directly fill people up with knowledge (my new book, Manage Memory for Learning explains how we do learn). People do not “record” what they learn during instruction for playback during application.

Barak Rosenshine, emeritus professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, helps us understand that one of the most critical outcomes from learning is building accurate and easy-to-access background knowledge. And he explains that “direct” methods of instruction make this process most efficient and effective. Experiential and inquiry learning approaches often leave people with missing pieces and misunderstandings, especially for people with less prior knowledge of the topic.

Friere and Rosenshine see instruction from opposite sides of the spectrum (Figure 1) but they both have important insights. We don’t learn by direct transfer of knowledge from one person to another. But that doesn’t mean that experience is needed to learn or a better approach. We can and do learn from others (but not by recording). Direct instruction falls into this category.

Direct, No Respect

Clearly, direct instructional approaches “get no respect,” to quote a stereotypical Rodney Dangerfield phrase. Direct instruction is discussed as “content-centered” while indirect instructional approaches are considered “people-centered.” Direct instruction is called “rote memorization.”

Let’s say you and I are discussing the best approach for teaching people to identify and handle substance spills in the workplace. Where along the continuum in Figure 1 do you think this instruction should fall?

Figure 1 Continuum from indirect methods (left) to direct methods (right) / Credit: Patti Shank

Let’s think this through. It’s lesson 1 of learning how to identify and handle substance spills. Should we:

  1. Spill a chemical on the floor and ask people to figure out what it is (left side of the continuum)?
  2. Provide background knowledge needed for being able to identify the spilled substance (right side of the continuum)?
  3. Something in the middle (for example, build a simulation of 1 so it is less dangerous)?

Let’s see which direction the learning sciences point us.

Research Says…

Learning sciences tells us that we build knowledge from less complex to more complex. Figure 2 shows increasing levels of knowledge (building onto each other). Remember means remembering critical facts (common hazardous chemicals found in the workplace,) and concepts (Material Data Safety Sheets). Understanding means ability to think through implications (safety implications of spilling paint thinners). Since knowledge builds from less complex (remember) to more complex (understand, application), we need these foundational blocks to learn, remember, and apply.

Figure 2 Levels of knowledge (adapted from Hailikari, T., Katajavuori, N. &, and Lindblom-Ylanne, S., figure from Shank, P. (2018), Manage Memory for Deeper Learning)

When teaching people to put out workplace fires, for example, we first learn about what’s needed for a fire to start and burn, the different types of fires, and substances that extinguish different types of fires. You don’t use the same substance to put out a grease fire as a chemical fire. To actually this knowledge, you use the background knowledge you learn. This includes analyzing if there’s time to put the fire out, determining the likely makeup of the fire, and selecting the right materials to fight the fire.

More experiential methods can be quite effective for understanding and application levels. But literally hundreds of research studies show that more direct methods are more effective for creating foundational building blocks of knowledge. The studies show that it is less effective and frustrating to push people directly into practice activities without first building underlying knowledge to do those activities. And, people too often end up with missing knowledge and misunderstandings without building accurate and needed building blocks first. Missing knowledge and misunderstandings make it much more difficult to keep learning, too.

These are just some of the helpful underlying principles for direct instruction (adapted from Archer & Hughes, 2011).

  • Focus content on critical knowledge and skills.
  • Sequence skills logically (prerequisite content first, less complex to more complex, often used to less used).
  • Chunk longer content into shorter chunks, especially for those with less prior knowledge.
  • Activate relevant prior knowledge to assist with understanding and meaning making.
  • Help participants organize and integrate new information with prior knowledge.
  • Monitor understanding and fix as needed.

Oh, and direct instruction isn’t rote memorization. Rote memorization is remembering only to remember. Remember having to memorize poems in English Literature? That’s rote memorization. Bleh. Direct instruction calls for some remembering, so we have the building blocks needed for application available and ready to use. We memorized multiplication tables, for example, not only to do multiplication problems in math class. We memorized them because doing quick multiplication is a part of being able to do higher levels of math. Multiplication tables help us do everyday math such as doubling the ingredients in a recipe, calculating expenses, or doing car maintenance.

The negative comments about direct instruction are undeserved. It seems more than obvious to me that whichever approaches help people gain and maintain needed skills are the most person-centered. Learning isn’t primarily about fun (see: but about gaining needed knowledge.

Experiential and inquiry methods can add unnecessary and difficult mental effort (cognitive load) for people with less prior knowledge. When cognitive load is too high, it’s hard or even impossible learn.

If you’re training people new to the topic, you will get your best outcomes with direct instruction. It’s not a false choice however. More experiential and inquiry methods can be added later to train people for application once the foundational building blocks are built.

My recommendations for lesson 1 of learning how to identify and handle substance spills? Use 2 to build foundational knowledge. Then use 3 to practice because of safety reasons.


  • Archer, A. L. & Hughes, C.A. (2011). Explicit Instruction: Effective and Efficient Teaching. New Yok, NY: The Guildford Press.
  • Clarke, T., Ayres, P., & Sweller, J. (2005). The Impact of Sequencing and Prior Knowledge on Learning Mathematics Through Spreadsheet Applications. ETR&D, 53(3), –24 ISSN 1042–1629.
  • Freire, Paulo (2006). The banking model of education, in Provenzo, Eugene F. Critical Issues in Education: An Anthology Of Readings. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publication, pp. 105–117.
  • Hailikari, T., Katajavuori, N. &, and Lindblom-Ylanne, S. (2008.) The relevance of prior knowledge in learning and instructional design. American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education, 72 (5) Article 113.
  • Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R. E. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based learning. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 75-86.
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  • Rosenshine, B. (2012). Principles of instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know, American Educator, 36(1),12-19.
  • Stockard, J., Woord, T. W., Coughlin, C., & Khoury, C. R. (2018). The effectiveness of direct instruction curricula: A meta-analysis of a half century of research. Review of Educational Research.
  • Shank, P. (2019). Manage Memory for Deeper Learning. Released on Amazon near June 1, 2018.