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Discovery Learning in Online Instructional Design Term Paper

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Updated: Jun 28th, 2020


Discovery learning arises from tasks and interactions that are motivational to the learner. This paper explores peer-reviewed scholarly articles explaining theories of discovery learning and experiments of online instruction design. It shows that learners experience different motivations for the learner, and the role of the instructional design is to ensure the motivation for learning remains high. Besides, the paper shows that well-meaning programs that are executed badly often hamper discovery learning. Thus, several suggestions are offered as part of the paper’s summary of the issue showing that while students prefer being in control of their learning process, they also need appropriate instruction designs that limit their choices of not taking action.


The instructional design depends on the level of understanding of designers and implementers of learning programs. In this case, tutors, coaches, and teachers using the online platform as their basis for instruction are the main determinants of learning outcomes. When teachers take on the role of coach, they become leaders capable of directing the learning process using new concepts. While doing this, the teachers also mature in their instructional capabilities and realize the potential to improve teaching efficacy through a particular medium (Gallucci, Devoogt Van Lare, Yoon, & Boatright, 2010). Leadership is a distributed or stretched assignment that covers many people with different roles in an organization or school setting. On the other hand, people serving as coaches mainly use instruction teaching. In this view, the coach act as teaching leaders whose effectiveness will be affected by the instructional design used.


Under the guidance of meaningful discovery learning theory, networks are very useful for offering an appropriate environment for learning. Web-based instruction is an example of a networked interface that enables both learning and discovery. While many learners will agree that online learning needs independence and self-regulation, it is also true that many learners are not self-regulated and they need external instruction to succeed. This paper seeks to explain the meaningful discovery learning with adult instruction perspectives and the theories influencing conventional practice.


In the 21st century, computer and communication technology continues to take center stage in the development of society. Online instruction is just one of the many ways that education has adapted to technological and communication advancement. The instruction system includes a learner and a teacher in its basic form who have a direct relationship. There is also the relationship between the learner and the resource and service of the network used for learning. On the other hand, there is a relationship between the teacher and the same resource and service of the network. The teacher organizes resources and services while the learner learns and applies the resources and services. The learner will seek the guidance of the online world from the teacher and will utilize network resources to do so.

Bruner’s discover learning theory provides a belief in the essence of learning. It claims that learning is for the formation and development of cognitive structures, which takes place actively through selection, processing, storing and applying new knowledge. Also, the theory shows that the learner consequently relies on existing experience and remains driven by the inner motivation to learn. Here, two things are important. First, the arrangement and the way learning content is presented plays a role in the outcomes. Secondly, the basic structure of the disciplines taught/learned and the methods used to learn them also play a role in the outcome (Sun & Li, 2010).

Another theory is Ausubel’s reception learning theory that is a refinement of meaningful learning theory. It shows that learning becomes meaningful when the non-discretionary substantive link emerges. The link connects current learned new concepts, new knowledge, and learners existing cognitive structures in areas like representation, propositions or perceptions. This theory highlights the importance of linking old and new knowledge to build the cognitive structures of the learner. However, both Ausubel’s and Bruner’s learning theories see learners as critical role players in cognition when they are learning (Sun & Li, 2010).

Application of theories to learning

The above theories help to elaborate the right ways of presenting information on the internet that is meant for learners. It should be in an organized form that sets up the learner for discovery learning. The particular subject being learned will determine the best organization to use to optimize discovery learning. If it is English, then sections can break down into speaking, reading and writing or translation. A second factor is that learning content must be appropriate for discovery learning. When the content is too difficult for learners, it discourages discovery. On the other hand, the nature of discovery learning is time-consuming.

Having too much information to discover in one session is not the optimal way of delivering online instructional design. Learners need to build the confidence of discovery gradually, and they will be able to do this when information is presented in a concise way that leaves the learners with appropriate thinking space. A third factor is that problem situation design and feedback information must be relevant. If they are irrelevant, then learners thirst for knowledge also referred to as the cognitive drive will not be strong enough to facilitate discovery learning. The essence of the design is to have the learner know that it’s possible to complete learning and that additional discovery is necessary and possible. Without such knowledge, learners lose meaning and hope for discovery learning outcomes.

Cognitive load can be the biggest reason affecting the quality of conventional online discussions. Darabi and Jin (2013) established that example-posting led to better online learning outcomes when matched against conventional discussion methods. The researchers examined four strategies named example-posting, filtered-posting, limited-number-of-posting, and conventional. The conventional strategy was used for the control group in the experiment. The other three are cognitive learning theory-based online discussion strategies. In comparison to the conventional strategy, each of the CLT-based online discussion strategies yielded a better quality of online discussion while the example-posting strategy was most efficient regarding the learner’s invested mental effort and the resultant quality of discussion. These findings support the view that reducing overall workload per session of learner participation and increasing interest builds better quality discovery learning.

Discovery learning and adult online instruction designs

An increased number of university programs have become online packaged products offered as time-compressed models. Trekles and Sims (2013) show that adult learners overall approached learning deeply. This was contrary to expectation where lack of enough time would make them have a lukewarm design for their studies as personal and professional responsibilities demand much of their attention. On further examination, the researchers reveal that course activities were the main reason for spirited learning efforts by the adult learners. The activities were engaging, and they mainly relied on hands-on and practical as well as collaborative endeavors. The researchers go on to claim that these factors encourage students to adopt deeper approaches. It follows that the engaging activities were relevant for promoting discovery learning. This evidence also shows that the idea of discovery learning works for adult learners in online platforms.

Learners behave differently when they are in an accelerated, asynchronous online graduate course than they would in another learning program. On the other hand, instructional design characteristics that deliver effective quality learning also differ in their characteristics and mechanism of working. Overall, the preferred outcomes are those that enhance learner’s interest and ability to reach deeper levels of learning. The findings of the Trekles and Sims (2013) research indicated that the level of learning, superficial or deep, was influenced by the depth of the course. With such evidence, then the notion of the Bruner’s discover learning theory comes alive as the type of work evidently offers room for selection, processing, storing and applying new knowledge (Sun & Li, 2010).

Peer interaction for online courses has a positive mediating effect on learning outcomes. Students report that working and discussing with peers online in every course supporting collaborative spaces was encouraging. Unfortunately, not all instructional designs provide an opportunity for students to learn from each other in addition to relying on direct instruction from course material and teachers. By learning from each other, students agree and disagree. They also discover the nuances of the topic according to individual learner’s knowledge and background. Thus, the individual process of learning intertwines at a peer level to provide rich linkages of the factors highlighted as affecting quality learning outcomes.

Peer perspectives have the potential to stimulate interest, and they are essential to sustain learner’s motivation for discovery learning. They promote rich dialogue, which is an essential element that would lead to a deeper understanding of a particular online course’s theories and topics. Nevertheless, many applications of instructional design for online courses continue to follow the principle of applying what has worked in face-to-face instructions. An example is the use of instructor verbal immediacy behavior. An understanding of the self-determination theory shows that in higher education instruction, social situations can influence motivation for learning. Motivation can be examined regarding quantity or quality, and various studies have sought to answer questions regarding both. Peer perspectives thrive in a social setting and make the self-determination theory relevant for supporting the idea of discovery learning that is discussed in this paper.

For online instructions, students often have to achieve autonomous motivation and that is usually difficult. In this case, the student relies on only on personal choice. For controlled motivation, there is external pressure to accomplish a goal. Here, features and factors outside an individual interact with the interest in the individual that builds up in the context of discovery learning (Vansteenkiste, Simons, Soenens, & Lens, 2004). Conversely, those who have autonomous motivation will perform better at controlled motivation environments than those lacking such motivation. It, therefore, shows that as much as the online instructional design should be for promoting controlled motivation, analysis of such programs must be careful not to overlook individual autonomous motivation factors that can affect the quality learning outcomes observed (Deci & Ryan, 2008).

According to Deci and Ryan (2008), identification plays a major role in determining autonomous motivation. In this case, the identification arises regarding the learner’s relationship to the instructional context. Online instruction design should ensure that human capacity and demand for making personal decisions and having control over the means to outcomes are factored in to support the manifestation of autonomous motivation. When learners are not getting interaction feedback, they feel that they are not able to control their learning outcomes somehow as they would. Even when they have absolute control through other means, verbal feedback can be a great way to enhance the interaction between learners and instructors (Loftus, Stavraky, & Urquhart, 2014). If the feedback is unavailable, interactions that are presented weaken and learners lose their satisfaction with on-line classes. It is likely that they will be less motivated to explore more information in subsequent on-line instructions under the same program.

Just as students need to know the learning material, they also need to interact personally with instructors. Therefore, online instructional designs should consider all possibilities for meeting this requirement for learners. The meaningful discovery learning theory has emphasized the need for forming the right context for motivation. Personal interaction serves as a gateway for developing the context (Deci & Ryan, 2008). Wang (2011) confirmed that latest online technologies make it easy to support the interaction between learners and instructors. The challenge remains in the organization of the various opportunities to ensure the online instruction is a success. The researcher highlights the need for cross-cultural collaboration.

Some programs online ask learners to rely on feedback from teaching partners to complete tasks. However, such tasks are often easy to complete alone with information from the internet (Summerville, 2002). Therefore, the mere instruction for students to rely on assistance from their learning partners is not enough to facilitate a cross-cultural learning outcome in an online instructional program. When seeking to promote cross-cultural understanding as part of online learning programs, it is important for instructors also to have students contributing part of a project. More so, the complete parts should be dependent on each other such that students are forced into a controlled motivation environment. The important thing is to have tasks and interactions as part of every learning activity. The rationale of this design is that it leads to the achievement of informal tasks that have a hidden and critical influence on autonomous motivation that ends up leading to the success of formal tasks (Wang, 2011).

The instructors designing a course online must put themselves in the user’s shoes. Those seeking to set up a course that allows instructors to effectively deliver tasks and activities to learners to promote quality discovery learner must also consider the instructor’s perspective (Rapanta & Cantoni, 2014). Another insight from the discussions above is that learners need a community environment. Peers can be very helping in facilitating discovery learning because they provide situational triggers that a formal instruction approach may not achieve. Similar, an interaction between learners and instructors provides a feedback loop for both participants in the learning process. The instructor matures in the use of the particular instructional design, while the learner achieves improved motivation quality with each enhancement of interaction. Overall, learning individuals is less effective than learning collaborating online and this aspect must be factored in on any online instruction design (Lewis & Wang, 2015).

The establishment of meaning in the learner’s perspective

Going back to the meaningful discovery learning theory, one understands now that meaning comes in different contextual perspectives. The aspects defined as elements supporting the development of cognitive structures, which end up in selection, processing, storing and application new knowledge. The important takeaway point is that students work better when they are in familiar surroundings. Improvement in interaction helps to offer the community environment that works well. For online instruction, group projects and other collaborative tasks will work well.

However, as evidence by Wang (2011) shows, it is also important to curate activities and design them in ways that allow role-playing for learners. This comes from the realization that people lacking autonomous motivation may not be ready to initiate interaction-building relations that support their learning. Thus, in addition to providing group-learning strategies, it’s important also to ensure that the designs are responsible for initiating interaction and sustaining it rather than leave this task to learners.

The discussion strategies explored by Darabi and Jin (2013), which shows that example-posting strategy improves participants learning outcomes in an online discussion setting also support the above considerations. This was an example where there was a specific instruction design works well to improve the quality of learning. Meanwhile, the focus must not only been on the learner’s experience when making online instruction designs. The instructors and the courses that are delivered through the platform should also be factored in. Many online programs for learning fail because they are a focus on the diversity of programs that can use similar instruction designs. The alternative approach that would work is to have different programs aligned with particular course material or information. This will ensure that the particular context that support discovery learners are sustained.

When forming interactions, online instruction design may take the framework by Ke (2010). It highlights knowledge construction process that has deep, collaborative learning impacts. It synthesizes and integrates new ideas then turns the new ideas into applications for aiding in additional discovery learning. The framework also captures social interactions that have an important bit to play in sustain motivation. Furthermore, there are self-regulated or self-directed processes that lead to overall learning oriented self-reflection. These are conceptual understandings that eventually apply to specific tasks or strategies that could be adapted to an online instruction design. From a conceptual level, they bring different theoretical understandings leading to discovery learning concepts. At an adult learning stage, teamwork coordination and technical issues management may also be incorporated into the framework.

A complete appropriate online instructional design would have social interaction, knowledge construction through sharing information, egocentric elaboration, ‘allocentric’ elaboration and application. It also has regulation of learning through coordination, reflection, and technical issues (Ke, 2010). It is also important to understand that for online instructions developed by instructors, the goal of the instruction will often shape the design outcome. Instructors will use the best approach knowledgeable to them and incorporate all possible features for quality learning.

For online discussion tasks leading to different purposes of a course, instructors should seek to foster content comprehension. They may do this through designs that offer perspective exchanges, and opportunities for evaluating content comprehension. These views have already been supported by experimental research highlighted in the earlier parts of this paper. However, it’s also important to consider them regarding their capacity to elicit complaints and work antagonistically with preferred learning outcomes. Learners usually end up with repetitive messages or an overwhelming amount of examples and online posts to process. Such case usually arises when the interaction is controlled, by the design emphasized on evidence of collaboration.


Designs for online instruction must not blindly follow theoretical considerations as well as empirical evidence. Learners need different degrees of interaction and task difficulty for meaningful discovery learning. When discussions are all about the evaluation of learning, the learner misses an opportunity for creating or participating in rich discussion content. Instead, the learner trivializes the activities of the course to show evidence of interaction. In fact, this is a major problem for web-based courses that are delivered as conventional solutions or alternatives to face-to-face instruction.

Their ideology is correct because they seek to promote interaction and task-based collaborative learning. However, their implementation is usually stereotypic, assuming learners will process activities and controlled motivations similarly. The example-posting strategy for online discussions facilitates quality learner better than other strategies because of its ability to leave sufficient control of the learning experience to the learner. Other designs for online instruction must embrace the same approach and avoid being too rigid to respond to the individual learner or instructor cases.


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Deci, E., & Ryan, R. (2008). Facilitating optimal motivation and psychological well-being across life’s domains. Canadian Psychology, 49, 14-23.

Gallucci, C., Devoogt Van Lare, M., Yoon, I. H., & Boatright, B. (2010). Instructional coaching: Building theory about the role and organizational support for professional learning. American Educational Research Journal, 47(4), 919-963.

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