Discovery-based learning designs incorporating active exploration are common within
computer-based instructional simulations, supported by constructivist theories of learning focussing on active
individual knowledge construction.
On the other hand, researchers have highlighted empirical
evidence showing that ‘pure’ discovery learning is of limited value and
that combinations of explicit
instruction and guided discovery learning are more effective. Little is known, however, about
differences in the cognitive processing that occurs when a learner undertakes active discovery
using a computer-based simulation
compared to when they are guided through observation
of simulation output.
A better understanding of the cognitive processing occurring when learners
interact with on-line materials in the context of specific learning designs is important both for
networked learning researchers and for on-line teachers.
reports on a study in which the
from two learning conditions using
computer-based simulations were compared
using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
One condition allowed exploration through manipulation of simulation parameters, while the other
allowed observation of simulation output from preset parameters.
of learning, it was hypothesised that the active exploration condition would lead to greater activation
brain areas associated with working memory organisation and long term memory formation. The
study also set out to explore the
feasibility of using fMRI to explore learners’ cognitive
processing while undertaking holistic learning activities using
on-line learning materials.
Results of the study were somewhat equivocal about differences in
with no consistent
differences in activation between the two conditions
able to be
Consistent with our related
research which suggests that discovery learning strategies vary
results of this study suggest that the cognitive processing during the two conditions varied across
Integrated analysis of the exploration processes, learning outcomes and measured brain
activations of individuals shows promise in better understanding the relationship between learning
strategy, interaction and cognition when using instructional simulations.
Approaches like this that
draw on an analysis of data on learning process and outcome along with an analysis of physiological
measures (in this case blood flow as an indicator of brain activation) are expected to be at the leading
edge of learning analytics
research in coming years.
The study also highlighted challenges associated
with the use of fMRI to explore learners' cognition while undertaking learning activities allowing
significant learner control and involving extensive computer-based interaction.