ADL Newsletter for Educators and Educational Researchers

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Advanced Distributed Learning for Educators and Educational Researchers

September 2006


A Report on the Second Games, Learning, and Society Conference


Discussion of Kirschner et al. Article

The Effectiveness of Minimally Guided Instruction

Rosenshine Discusses Kirschner et al.

Beyond “He Said, She Said”: Games For Learning Move Beyond The Traditional Dichotomy of Weak V Strong Instructional Guidance



Newsletter Archive



This issue of the Newsletter is devoted to an overview of the second Games, Learning, and Society Conference, and a discussion of the Kirschner et al. paper referenced in the Publications section of this issue. Game developers use ADL instructional objects and also develop objects for use by others, hence it is useful for our community to be aware of developments at the Conference. The Kirschner et al. paper casts a critical eye on some of the assumptions held by developers and researchers dealing both with games and instructional objects. The instructional objects developed for ADL can be used productively by developers of any orientation, constructivist or any others. Since the ADL community consists of scholars and developers with a wide variety of outlooks, from the constructivist to the behaviorist, it is appropriate to discuss the issues raised in the Kirschner et al. article in this Newsletter. Four such discussions were contributed for this issue.

I hereby invite others to prepare reactions and discussions of the Kirschner et al. article for future Newsletter issues, as well as comments, questions, or rejoinders to the views already published. So please send your reactions to me at for consideration for publication in future issues. Of course, such an airing of views will be valuable to clarify the issues raised in the paper. It will also help us to develop a better understanding of the complexities of human learning from instruction- an aim all theoretical orientations can agree on.

Sig Tobias


ADL Initiative Launches

The Advanced Distributed Learning Initiative of the Department of Defense announced September 1 that it is spinning off a new virtual community called The new organization is dedicated to supporting the global advancement of distributed learning and will be directed by Judy Brown, who was formerly Director of the Academic ADL Co-lab at the University of Wisconsin System in Madison.

"The DoD is firmly committed to using digital technology to improve readiness through training across the services and components," said Dr. Robert Wisher, Director of the ADL Initiative. "We have been amongst the pioneers in developing and scaling these technologies, and we have always been actively engaged with the other stakeholders in government, industry and academia around the world. will engage all of us who are advancing the possibilities for distributed learning." is a completely independent organization forming around both sponsored and volunteer communities of interest. "Our goal is to coalesce the many interests and stakeholders by offering to facilitate their online interaction under one virtual roof," explains Director Judy Brown. "If a responsible moderator appears for a topic of interest to the community, they will be able to start their own working group. We're actively looking for volunteers."








A Report on the Second Games, Learning, and Society Conference

The second annual conference on “Games, Learning, and Society” was co-sponsored by the Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL) Co-Laboratory and the School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison WI The Conference, held in Madison on June 15 and 16 2006, was “sold out.” It was attended by 325 people and had a total of 24 sessions (workshops, symposia, paper sessions), plus four Fireside chats and seven Chat n’ Frags (see below). Conference organizers did not wish to exceed approximately 325 attendees in order to retain the meeting’s informal, interactive, and participatory character. Continental breakfasts, lunch, one dinner, as well as snacks and beverages during break times and reception hours were provided as part of the registration fee.

In addition to individual presentations and symposia the Conference also had Fireside Chats in one corner of a room with a simulated fireplace on a large screen television set replete with a cozy fire. There were also sessions for informal discussions, Chat ‘n’ Frag sessions where game designers, researchers, and players could have hands on experience with games, a Movie Room to view web casts of sessions that were too crowded to attend live, and a Dorm Room equipped with games consoles and computers.

This brief overview of the Conference makes it impossible to delve into any single presentation in detail. Instead, general themes sounded in many of the sessions will be summarized rather than citing presenters since some themes appeared in multiple sessions and were made by different presenters. Those interested are encouraged to access the conference site, examine the titles and abstracts of the various presentations, and contact presenters, in the section dealing with their brief bios, for copies of the overheads and/or papers of the presentations

Game Playing Makes Consumers of Knowledge Producers

A theme sounded in many of the sessions was that games offered the opportunity for participants to blur the lines between being consumers and producers of knowledge. Game players have to think like producers to create paths through game worlds. By participating in such worlds players have to construct versions of the game world, formulate plans, and then execute them. Such processes are more likely to be associated with producers than consumers of knowledge.

Professional expertise in fields such as medicine, science, and engineering is gained in practicum experiences in which people take action on the basis of knowledge. Games offer the opportunity to create virtual practicum experiences where knowledge may be acquired and, most importantly, also applied to the solution of problems. It was also noted that a number of games offer players the opportunity to produce media that verge on professional quality productions.

Re-usability of game components was another issue addressed in several presentations. In accord with one of the central concerns of ADL more generally, developers were urged to consider the development of instructional objects that could be used and reused in multiple games and shared with other developers.


It was noted in many sessions that games tend to be highly motivating, and sometimes actually addictive. These motivational properties can be seen dramatically when the average readership of 1.8 individuals for the typical scientific article is compared to the several hundred thousand players who participate in many multi user games. Further data dealing with popularity reported at the meeting indicated that 15 million people spent $1.5 billion on fantasy sports; these data are dwarfed by the overall expenditures of $7.3 billion spent on computer and video games in the United States in 2004.

Another index of the popularity of games is the fact that many Universities are offering programs of studies dealing with computer games, and that the field is also attracting increasing attention from academic researchers. Clear indications of both the motivational properties of games and of the increasing attention they are attracting from researchers were the attentive and involved audiences in most of the sessions. In addition, the last sessions on the last day of the conference (Friday afternoon 3.30-5 pm) were well attended, and in some cases actually had packed rooms.

It was also indicated that young students report that they consider computer science classes boring, but that game experiences outside of school have been found to motivate them to feel more favorably towards computer science. At times experiences with games even led students to consider computer science as a career path. It was noted that estimates indicate that the United States will add 1.5 million jobs in the information and computer area by 2012 but that only one half that many graduates will be available to fill those positions. In view of the positive effects of game playing on improving students attitudes towards computer science it was implied that game playing may address these concerns.

Research and Evaluation

Many the sessions suggested that much attention had been devoted to describing the rich opportunities afforded by games for learning and application of that learning. Less attention and energy has been allocated to research on games, or to evaluations of game playing outcomes. A call sounded in many sessions was that the time had come to devote attention, time, and resources to research and evaluation of games and their effects.

An integration of games with some of the concerns of contemporary researchers studying issues in the larger field of human learning was evident from themes addressed in many talks. For example, talks dealt, wholly or in part, with topics such as expert-novice differences, discourse analysis, metacognition, epistemology, zone of proximal development, and the effects of prior knowledge. Of course these themes are also of intense current interest in educational research and cognitive science thus offering the opportunity to incorporate research on games into the rich body of ongoing research in these fields.

Contributed by Sigmund Tobias

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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 teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41, 75-86.

A critical look at a number of instructional approaches relevant to ADL. Specifically, the authors examined constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry based teaching and find little empirical or theoretical support for these approaches. Reactions to this article for publication in this Newsletter are welcome. It is clear that the Kirchner et al, article will stimulate healthy discussion of the issues raised. We hope that it will not stop merely at discussion but also generate vigorous research on the issues posed in the paper.

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Discussion of Kirschner et al. Article

Since I invited discussion of the Kirschner et al. (2006) paper, see reference above, perhaps it is appropriate for me to kick it off, especially since some people requested guidelines before contributing. Please do not take these comments as a model, but rather as one of many possible forms for advancing the discourse about an important topic.

Some time ago (1991) I was asked to comment in print on a set of papers featuring a disagreement between constructivists and researchers committed to an Instructional Systems Design approach to the development of materials. I announced then that I was a card carrying eclectic in that dispute, and haven’t seen anything in the last 15 years to make me change my mind.

I have been impressed by one aspect of the constructivist (let me use that term as shorthand for discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry based teaching that are the subject of the Kirschner et al., paper) position not commented on in the article. It has been claimed, most recently at the Games conference described above, and it seems intuitively reasonable that these approaches induce higher student motivation than approaches relying more heavily on deduction. On the other hand, I am unaware of a study comparing motivation on constructivist and other types of materials. If any of our readers are aware of such evidence, please share those references with the rest of us. If such references do not emerge, an empirical study of this assumption would be most helpful. Student motivation can be assessed in many different ways, and a comparison of learner motivation while students are working on the same content developed along constructivist and more deductive modes would be a useful contribution to the research literature

I am also impressed by one of the major points in the Kirschner et al. manuscript, namely that the constructivist approaches absorb a very large proportion of working memory, especially for novices. The importance of working memory in learning has been demonstrated by Kyllonen (2002) who reported correlations between six measures of working memory capacity and 15 reasoning measures that ranged from 0.80 to 0.88. He also reported a 0.99 correlation between nine measures of working memory and the 10-subtest Armed Forces Vocational Ability Battery, a test-usually also considered a measure of learning ability. Such high relationships suggest that working memory and general learning ability, or intelligence, are highly similar if not virtually synonymous.

Kirschner et al. seem to infer that constructivist approaches absorb a large portion of working memory, or general intelligence. One would hope that such an important assumption would be tested experimentally. Kyllonen (2002) also described a number of assessments of working memory. A study would be useful in which the same instructional material is taught in a deductive and constructivist mode, while assessments of the load on working memory are made as students work on the materials. Such research would provide much needed data to bolster the discussion about the relative percentages of working memory absorbed by the two approaches.

In summary, I hope that the Kirschner et al., article will not only stimulate rhetoric about motivation and working memory among the advocates of the various positions, but also lead them to conduct research to support the rhetoric.


Kyllonen, P.C. (2002).  'g:' knowledge, speed, strategies, or working-memory capacity? A systems perspective (pp. 415-446).   in R. J. Sternberg & E. L. Grigorenko (Eds.),  The general factor of intelligence: how general is it? Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates

Tobias, S, (1991). An examination of some issues in the constructivist-ISD controversy from an eclectic perspective. Educational Technology, 31 (9), 41-43.

Sigmund Tobias
Institute for Urban and Minority Education
Teachers College, Columbia University

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The Effectiveness of Minimally Guided Instruction

The ADL Training Evaluation Team endorses the conclusions drawn by Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark (2006) that “minimally guided instruction is less effective and less efficient than instructional approaches that place a strong emphasis on guidance of the student learning process.” Minimally guided instruction refers to instructional techniques where learners must discover essential information for themselves. It has also been referred to as problem-based discovery, experiential learning, discovery learning, and constructivist learning. Kirschner et al. advocate direct instructional guidance (i.e., instruction that fully explains the concepts and procedures students are required to learn) will result in greater change in long-term memory of training concepts than minimally guided instruction.

Working memory is limited in duration and capacity when processing novel information. Minimally guided instruction burdens trainees’ working memory by requiring them to sort through irrelevant information while locating information that is relevant to their jobs. Working memory cannot be used to commit relevant information to long-term memory while it assesses the relevance of material. In contrast, direct-guided instruction provides trainees with material that is directly applicable to their jobs so working memory can be used to commit training content to their long-term memories.

Supporters of discovery learning focus on the benefits of an inductive approach, whereby individuals explore and experiment with the task to learn the rules, principles, and strategies for effective performance (Smith, Ford, & Kozlowski, 1997). While Kirschner et al. provide a strong argument for the ineffectiveness of discovery learning, the effectiveness of discovery learning as an instructional method depends on the amount and type of guidance provided to learners (Smith et al., 1997). As suggested by the term “guided discovery,” discovery learning and instructional guidance are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Within the discovery learning framework, providing learners with instructional guidance such as cues or prompts, or reducing the total variability of possible responses can help to address some of the working memory issues raised by Kirschner et al. (2006) while still allowing for some of the benefits of having learners take an inductive approach to mastering the material.

While more research is needed to compare these instructional methods, it is also important to note that the majority of the research in this area has focused almost exclusively on information or skill acquisition. However, for some training courses, key learning outcomes might also include changes in a trainee’s attitudes, motivation, and self-efficacy. For example, in safety training programs one of the goals is to teach learners safety skills and how to engage in safe workplace behaviors. In these programs, it is also critical that learners leave training with the attitude that it is important to engage in safe workplace behaviors. Future research should continue to explore approaches to learner guidance and examine not only cognitive and skill-based learning results, but also affective learning outcomes.


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 teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41, 75-86.

Smith, E. M., Ford, J., & Kozlowski, S. W. J. (1997). Building adaptive expertise: Implications for training design strategies. In M. A. Quinones & A. Ehrenstein (Eds.), Training for a rapidly changing workplace: Applications of psychological research (pp. 89-118). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Traci Sitzmann & Katherine Hildebrand
Training Evaluation Team
Advanced Distributed Learning Co-Lab, Alexandria, VA

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Rosenshine Discusses Kirschner et al.

I liked Kirschner, Sweller and Clark’s (2006) description of Ericsson and Kintch’s (1995) “long-term working memory.” I liked the finding that when one is using previously learned material the limitations on working memory disappear because one does not need to process the material quickly and I liked the finding that there are no limits to the amount of information that can be brought into the working memory.

But otherwise, I don't believe that Kirschner, Sweller and Clark (2005) presented anything new about instruction. I don't believe this article added anything to the concepts of supported instruction, guided practice, and scaffolds.

Their “worked examples” idea didn’t seem any different from previous descriptions of the use of modeling in instruction, that is, instructional procedures where the teacher first models the entire process, with explanations, then the teacher only provides some of the work the second time and the students add their contribution, and, finally, the students do most of the work alone and the teacher helps. Indeed, their “worked examples” sounds like Collins, Brown, and Newman’s (1989) “cognitive apprenticeship.”

Their article serves, however, to raise the question about why this conflict between discovery learning and direct teaching (which they call “direct guided instruction”) persists in education. Despite years of research on instruction, and despite research findings such as those which Kirschner et al. (2006) present in their article, constructivism remains the dominant position of curriculum departments in colleges of education. The curriculum departments in colleges of education favor constructivism, and they are able to withstand those empirically oriented educational psychologists who tend to favor direct guided instruction.

The curriculum people always win. Constructivism is a lovely romantic idea of students pursuing their interests and learning on their own, and there is no force of data that can withstand those emotional ideas. Constructivism, after all, is not data-based; rather, it is an emotion about kids and teaching. Chall (2000) called such notions “romantic,” as opposed to “rational,” and apparently the absence of data to support romantic beliefs does not reduce their attractiveness to adherents. I’m surprised that after all these years people like Kirschner et al. and Richard Mayer (2004) don’t understand that the curriculum people always win on this point.

A recent manifestation of romantic thinking is the National Board for Professional Teacher Certification (2006). The standards by which the teacher work-products of their teaching are judged are constructivist. The standards were written by teachers and teacher-educators. After all, it is rare to find a teacher educator who favors direct teaching.

So, I thought this was a well-written article, and I’m glad when these articles appear, but by now, even I have learned that they won’t change practice.


Chall, J. S. (2000). The Academic Achievement Challenge: What Really Works in the Classroom New York, NY: Guilford,

Collins, A., Brown, J. S., & Newman, S. E. (1989). Cognitive apprenticeship: Teaching the crafts of reading, writing, and mathematics. In L. B. Resnick (Ed.),, Knowing, learning, and instruction: Essays in honor of Robert Glaser (pp. 453-494). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Ericsson, K. A., & Kintsch, W. (1995). Long-term working memory. Psychological Review, 102, 211-245.

Mayer, Richard E. (2004). Should There Be a Three-Strikes Rule Against Pure Discovery Learning? The Case for Guided Methods of Instruction.  American Psychologist, 59, No 1, 14-19.

National Board for Professional Teaching Standards

Barak Rosenshine
University of Illinois-Urbana

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Beyond “He Said, She Said”: Games For Learning Move Beyond The Traditional Dichotomy of Weak V Strong Instructional Guidance

In a recent article appearing in Educational Psychologist, Kirschner et al. (2006) argue that “based on our current knowledge of human cognitive architecture, minimally guided instruction is likely to be ineffective (p. 76).”

The authors present a convincing case that simply turning kids loose in an educational environment—no matter how cleverly designed—is a poor instructional strategy. They argue, rightly, that too many interventions naïvely assume that students will learn if they engage in “authentic” practices of experts in a domain—forgetting that what experts do and how experts learned to do what they do are not necessarily synonymous. So throwing students into a complex environment and asking them to figure out the underlying rules is, as Shaffer, Squire, Halverson, and Gee. argue (2005), a bad theory of learning because “learners are novices [and] leaving them to float in rich experiences with no support triggers the very real human penchant for finding creative but spurious patterns and generalizations (p. 108).”

The problem is that the authors present their case as a false dichotomy: minimally guided instruction versus what they call “strong instructional guidance.” But we are only going to speak to the current problems of education when we recognize that these are not our only choices.

We have to use new technologies to do more than just “more of the same”—more than traditional open-ended discovery learning environments and more than “the presentation and explanation of knowledge” that Kirschner et al present as its alternative.

As my colleagues and I have argued (Gee, 2003, 2005; Shaffer, 2005, 2007; Shaffer et al., 2005; Squire, 2004, 2005; Squire & Jenkins, 2004), computer and video games are one way to do just that. Why? Because any well-designed game has to do more than merely immerse a player in a virtual world. A good game has to teach players the rules of its virtual world—otherwise no one could play. And because no virtual world can accommodate every possibility, a good game has to lead players toward certain kinds of actions and away from others.

The kind of guidance that learners need varies depending on the domain in which they are learning (Shaffer, 2007). Different kinds of experts develop expertise through different kinds of guided experiences, and we can make educational games that recreate these experiences—and this guidance—for students. One way to do this is by developing what I have referred to elsewhere as epistemic games (Shaffer, 2005, 2007). In epistemic games players develop expertise not by playing as experts, but by playing as novices training to be experts of a particular kind: engineers, urban planners, journalists, and so on. Because direct mentoring by experts is part of any training for expertise, explicit guidance is part of any epistemic game. But it is the kind of guidance that real experts get in their practicum experiences, rather than the traditional direct instruction of school-based learning.

Key to this approach is the idea that a game is always more than a computer simulation (Shaffer, 2007). A game is all of the things we do with, in, and around a simulation: the roles we play when interacting with a simulation, the norms we follow, the rules we obey. The game provides the framework in which we make sense of what happens when we interact with the simulation. Educational games—not simulations for discovery learning but simulations that contain and are set within a framework of expert guidance—are powerful learning environments precisely because they move beyond the false dichotomy of “minimal” versus “strong” guidance, and recognize that students need to be a part of rich activities that build on their own goals, backgrounds, and interests, but they also need explicit guidance to find the underlying “rules of the game”: the knowledge, skills, values, and ways of thinking in a domain of expertise (Shaffer & Gee, 2005).

Kirschner et al provide an important cautionary tale that should be required reading for any designer of instructional technology. But their cautionary tale should itself be read with some caution. Because, as with any thesis and its antithesis, the most powerful results come not from choosing one or the other, but from finding a productive synthesis of the two.


Gee, J. P. (2003). What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Gee, J. P. (2005). What will a state of the art video game look like? Innovate, 1(6), (available online at

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 teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 75-86.

Shaffer, D. W. (2005). Epistemic Games. Innovate, 1(6). Reprinted in Computer Education (in press).

Shaffer, D. W. (2007). How Computer Games Help Children Learn. New York: Palgrave.

Shaffer, D. W., & Gee, J. P. (2005). Before every child is left behind: How epistemic games can solve the coming crisis in education (WCER Working Paper No. 2005-7). Madison: University of Wisconsin-Madison, Wisconsin Center for Education Research.

Shaffer, D. W., Squire, K. D., Halverson, R., & Gee, J. P. (2005). Video Games and the Future of Learning. Phi Delta Kappan, 87(2), 104-111.

Squire, K. D. (2004). Sid Meier’s Civilization III. Simulations and Gaming, 35(1).

Squire, K. D. (2005). Game-based learning: Present and future of state of the field. Retrieved May 31, 2005, from

Squire, K. D., & Jenkins, H. (2004). Harnessing the Power of Games in Education. Insight, 3(1), 5-33.

David Williamson Shaffer
University of Wisconsin –Madison & Academic ADL

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