Why minimal guidance does not work

-Lynn Vos

A review of 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.

In this review, I want to take up some of the points raised by Brennan (2012) in his article below “Experience alone is not experiential learning” written for the November 2012 edition of the HEA Marketing Digest.

A review of the Journal of Marketing Education 2000-2012 shows that experiential learning (EL) methods are widely used in marketing education and that the phrase is often used either interchangeably with or in conjunction with action learning, self-directed learning, problem-based learning (PBL), discovery learning, situated learning, inquiry-based learning and project- based learning.[1]. These methods also go under the umbrella of constructivist approaches to education.

EL methods in marketing education include simulation games; live-case projects; consultancy; educational drama; field-trips; work placements, PLB, and reality-based learning, among others. The underlying assumption supporting the use of these methods is that students learn about marketing through experiencing aspects of the marketing function for themselves, rather than being “told” about it from teachers and teaching-related resources such as textbooks, videos, and case studies. Proponents argue that learning is more powerful when it is situated within the context it applies to, and where the individual can bring his or her own experience to the new situation to then build and test new knowledge that is meaningful to the individual.[2]

However, as Brennan (2012) notes in the article above, the growing use of experiential learning methods requires that we think carefully about how we implement them, that we seek out evidence that backs up their educational value, and that we investigate whether they are suitable at all levels and for all learners.

In terms of how they are used by educators, Brennan (2012) in his publication “Teaching marketing at University level: A review of recent research”, notes that in some cases, educators are not really following the principles of experiential learning set out by Kolb (1971, 1984, 2007). He reviews an article by Young, Caudill & Murphy (2008) who

Sound a note of caution [about EL methods]—their empirical study of a Principles of Marketing course showed that, unless students are guided through all four stages of the Kolb learning cycle (concrete experience; reflective observation; abstract conceptualisation; active

experimentation), experiential learning activities can result in surface rather than deep learning. Experiential learning techniques are not a magic solution, but a tool that has to be incorporated carefully into the learning process if the desired outcomes (such as student critical engagement and deep learning) are to be achieved (p. 4).

In terms of their value as learning approaches, there is much to commend EL methods. On the other hand, where is the evidence of educational benefit? Many studies on experiential learning in marketing education use relatively small samples of students during one semester or academic year only and student satisfaction and their perception of value are the main measures of success. Recent studies have questioned these types of studies. For example, the authors of the UK Commission (2008) for Employment and Skills note that evidence gathered in many experiential learning studies “is frequently drawn from data collection methods which are imperfect” and draw conclusions that reflect “perceptions rather than a clear evidence base”(pg. 80).

…when pressure is put on working memory to search for problem-relevant information, “it cannot be available for learning (i.e. altering long term memory)…

In addition to critiques over methodology and the wider applicability of conclusions drawn, other researchers in marketing education have asked whether experiential learning benefits and/or engages all students. Ackerman and Hu (2011), for example, used a 'learning orientations' questionnaire created by Martinez (1998) to identify students in a marketing cohort who tended to be low on autonomy. Martinez’s scale does not ask about student preferences for different learning approaches but rather for students to report on how they “usually act and respond in a learning situation” (Ackerman and Hu, 2011, p.277). Learning independence or autonomy is the willingness of the learner to take individual responsibility for his or her learning without the need for regular encouragement or support from a tutor (Martinez, 1998). In their study, Ackerman and Hu (2011) found that students who are low on autonomy do not tend to enjoy or engage with EL methods.

Interestingly, Martinez (1998,2005) has found support for her learning orientations theory in the neurobiology of learning and memory research field. Work by Zull (2002, 2011), Sousa (2010, 2011), Tokuhama-Espinosa(2010), and Jones (2010) reveal how research in educational neuroscience is helping teachers to better understand how students learn and how to use this new knowledge to develop new teaching and learning strategies. Kirschner, Sweller & Clark (2006) in their article “Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work” also provide evidence from neuroscience to critique the educational value of constructivist based teaching methods.

The authors explain that, depending on how they are structured, these methods may not contribute to student learning, particularly when the student is new to a subject or discipline area.

“The past half-century of empirical research on this issue has provided overwhelming and unambiguous evidence that minimal guidance during instruction is significantly less effective and efficient than guidance specifically designed to support the cognitive processing necessary for learning (p.76).”

The authors draw upon studies into human cognitive architecture and how working memory, long-term memory and other cognitive processes are involved in learning. Of these processes, the most important is long-term memory. In fact, they argue,

“The aim of all instruction is to alter long-term memory. If nothing has changed in long-term memory, nothing has been learned. Any instructional recommendation that does not or cannot specify what has been changed in long-term memory…..is likely to be ineffective (p. 76).”

So how does this relate to EL based methods of learning? Methods such as problem-based, discovery-based inquiry based learning and even types of consultancy projects generally provide minimal guidance and minimal instruction. The student is meant to discover or uncover the key themes, meanings, patterns and relationships in a body of knowledge by problem-solving, by carrying out the project, and by drawing upon their own experiences and prior knowledge.

…“because students learn so little from a constructivist approach, most teachers who attempt to implement classroom-based constructivist instruction end up providing students with considerable guidance” anyway…

According to neuroscience, this approach has three key failings: first, it places a great burden on working memory capacity which is highly limited in its ability when processing new or novel information; second when pressure is put on working memory to search for problem-relevant information, “it cannot be available for learning (i.e. altering long term memory)” (p.77);and third, it minimizes the critical role of long term memory in being able to provide the information and procedures necessary to problem solving. If the student has not been explicitly taught that information and those procedures then it is not available in long term memory to bring to novel situations.

EL approaches are often lauded as being more beneficial that didactic approaches where the emphasis is on teaching students a body of knowledge. Instead there is a “shift in emphasis towards “learning a discipline by experiencing the processes and procedures of the discipline” (p. 78). Students engage in projects or practical work without first learning the “the facts, laws, principles and theories that make up a discipline’s content” (p.78) and it is assumed that through project work they will come to learn these for themselves.

But, as Kirschner et al., (2006) note, this simply does not take into account the limits of working memory in new situations nor does it pay attention to the science which tells us that when students do have the benefit of previously learned information, then the limits of working memory disappear and their capacity to learn more and learn more efficiently increases.

It is important to point out that the Kolb experiential learning cycle does take into account human cognitive architecture. According to Kolb, learning can start at any stage of the cycle (concrete experience, reflection, abstract conceptualisation, and abstract experimentation) but for learning to take place effectively, the student must reflect on the experience and link it with previous knowledge, learned in a variety of ways, in order to apply both the new and the previous knowledge effectively to new situations. Since both reflection and abstract conceptualisation require drawing upon long term memories, then Kolb’s learning cycle, if appropriately used, can lead to effective learning.

Kirschner et al (2006) add that “because students learn so little from a constructivist approach, most teachers who attempt to implement classroom-based constructivist instruction end up providing students with considerable guidance” anyway (p. 79). Many teachers will add and implement “scaffolding” techniques that include taking time to teach content, modelling the most effective procedures for problem solving, having students take notes and discuss what they were having problems with, and many other interactions and interventions. In other words, from the research they reviewed, it appears that teachers themselves do not always stick to the methods prescribed by constructivists.

This is probably the way that most of us use experiential learning in our classrooms. We teach key concepts, facts and processes and then give students an opportunity to put that knowledge into practice. When they have questions or appear to be struggling, we provide seminars, readings, workshops and face-to-face meetings to help them over the hurdles and move forward.

If there is a key lesson to be learned from Kirchner et al. and the neuroscience of learning, I think that it suggests caution in using experiential learning approaches in the foundation or first years of studying a new discipline or when introducing new content. We should do some good old fashioned teaching to provide as Kirchner et a. (2006) note “the facts, laws, principles and theories that make up a discipline’s content”(p. 78)In so doing, we are helping our students to build the long term memories that can be applied in EL approaches used in later years or later in the course. In addition, we should be careful to ensure that any pedagogical approach we use is supported by evidence, is applied following all of its core principles (e.g.: Kolb’s learning cycle), and is working for all and not just some of our students.

Experience Alone is not Experiential Learning

Author: Ross Brennan (for HEA Marketing Education Digest, November 2013)

Keywords: Experiential learning; Kolb; learning cycle

...when sophisticated ideas … are presented as de-contextualised factoids one has to occasionally wonder what the point of the exercise is…

The ideas of many theorists are presented in such a highly simplified form in textbooks and popular articles, so detached from their original intellectual context, that they are shorn of much of their intellectual power. Such is the fate that has befallen some of the work of Michael Porter and the late Igor Ansoff, for example. Not that I imagine this is a great source of sleepless nights for such eminent scholars. Nevertheless, when sophisticated ideas that were conceived as part of a wider theoretical system are presented as de-contextualised factoids one has to occasionally wonder what the point of the exercise is. For example, Ansoff created an entire, soaring, extraordinary edifice for the strategic planning process; an edifice that was very popular and influential in its day, and even arguably remains influential today.

Yet ask the typical marketing student what Ansoff means to them and they will likely tell you the “Ansoff Matrix” (that is, Ansoff’s product-market growth vector matrix), and, if my encounters are anything to go by, will then struggle to remember what the axes are and where “market development” fits. Ask them to describe more complex variants of the matrix, or to explain where the matrix fits into Ansoff’s comprehensive strategic planning process, since probably nobody who ever taught them marketing asked them to learn more than <Ansoff matrix = Market Penetration; Product Development; Market Development; Diversification>. Now, if there is any truth at all in my stereotyping of this marketing student, then it’s not surprising if employers are a bit huffy about

the marketing graduates turning up on their doorsteps. Frankly, what’s the use to employers if a marketing student can tell them (more or less accurately) what’s in the Ansoff Matrix? And the answer here is not “application” because most employers, even those without the benefit of a business school education, know that in broad terms they can develop new products, develop new markets, or diversify. Taken out of the context of Ansoff’s comprehensive system, the knowledge is banal, obvious and unhelpful. Now, can we just hold that thought while I change tack temporarily, please?

Experiential approaches to learning are very popular among marketing educators. How have I acquired this putative knowledge? Oddly enough, my perception is that I have acquired it through a classic Kolb learning cycle. Concrete experience-reflective observation-abstract conceptualization-active experimentation; cycled and re-cycled. Of course it’s not as neat as that, but all of the processes that Kolb describes have been present. Various mechanisms have been involved in the learning process, such as observing and reflecting on practices I have seen as an external examiner, observing colleagues teach, conversing with colleagues, attending the education track at the Academy of Marketing conference, and, of course, writing articles like this.

The literature on marketing education is also a rich source on innovations that educators have introduced on their own courses (examples are Ardley & Taylor (2010), Bobot (2010), Brennan & Pearce (2009) and Inks, Schetzle & Avila (2011)). In addition the work of Karns (2005), about learning methods in marketing, documents the use of several experiential learning methods in his 1993 survey of marketing classes and considerably more in his follow-up study in 2004. However, my own reflections led me to the suspicion that experiential learning in marketing education might not be all that it’s cracked up to be. I have recently found myself writing external examiner reports to the effect that there may be too much of it in the curriculum now—a feeling that simply subjecting marketing students to a relentless barrage of “experience” is not enough. It was nice to find that I was not alone in my unease.

Two recent articles in particular suggest that we may have a problem with experiential learning in marketing education. Firstly, Hunter-Jones (2012) finds resistance to participation in experiential learning projects from some very able students

because they are concerned that the inherent uncertainties in such a learning process may damage their grades. She calls these the formulaic learners: “They are less prepared, or even able, to be flexible and accommodating of other learners in case this has a negative influence on their overall mark. They want to be in control of their own achievements and are formulaic in achieving this”(Hunter-Jones, 2012:26). Most, perhaps all, of the colleagues in the marketing academy with whom I have shared these insights from Hunter-Jones’ article have found them entirely plausible.

Secondly, Young and colleagues (2008) tried out experiential learning on a Principles of Marketing module and found that, unless students are carefully guided through all four stages of the Kolb learning cycle, experiential learning activities can result in surface learning rather than deep learning. They make what seems to me to be a very important point when they say: “experience in and of itself is not educative … if students do not think seriously about their experiences, their experiences may reinforce stereotypes and incorrect suppositions” (Young, et al., 2008:28). For example, I grew up at a time when crass homophobic and sexist jokes were staples of TV comedians. Thankfully, we have now learned that such practices are hurtful, damaging and unacceptable. However, simply sitting through more and more TV shows containing such jokes (greater experience) will not teach you that they are a bad thing, in fact it may simply convince you that such jokes are “normal”, i.e. reinforce the stereotype.

At the start of this article I was suggesting that great ideas can be diminished by being taken out of their intellectual context, over-simplified, and presented as elementary tools. Subsequently, I have pointed to concerns about the use of experiential learning in marketing education. Now I am putting two and two together, and possibly making them add up to four. Could marketing educators have fallen into the trap of believing that a highly simplified version of Kolb’s theory is all they need to know to implement experiential learning successfully in their teaching? Is it time to return to the basics of experiential learning? Could it be that some of us have fallen into the trap of stripping away so much of the intellectual content from Kolb’s ideas that we are implementing a diminished and ineffectual version of Kolb’s work? Has Kolb been Ansoffised and Porterised to the extent that, even when we claim to base our learning approaches on his research, we are in fact basing it on a version that is so detached and simplified that our claim is erroneous?

So, in the remaining few words of this short article let me provide you with all you need to know about David Kolb’s (1984) theory of experiential learning. Ah! OK. Maybe you spotted the trap there just about when I did. Taking another run at that, and for those of you not already deeply acquainted with Kolb’s work, let me suggest one or two places where you could start looking. Well, if you haven’t read Kolb’s 1984 book “Experiential Learning: Experience as The Source of Learning and Development”, you may be surprised at the extent to which it engages with the philosophy of knowledge (Bertrand Russell, John Dewey, Edmund Husserl, George Hegel), although less surprised at all of the learning theorists who pop up. Here is Kolb’s definition of experiential learning to get you thinking: “Learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience” (D. A. Kolb, 1984:38).

Then, of course, one needs a critical perspective on these things, and Christopher Kayes’ (2002) article can serve that purpose. And, naturally, one also has to look at a more recent re-statement of Kolb’s theory re-formulated in the light of two decades of criticism, reflection and reformulation, a purpose served by Kolb & Kolb (2005). An aspect of this more recent work that will interest those who follow developments in neuroscience (or neuromarketing) is that Kolb & Kolb call attention to research that suggests a link between the Kolb learning cycle and the process of brain functioning. They cite biology professor James Zull (2002), and at Zull’s website you find the following interesting information:

“According to our current model of the connection between brain function, human learning, and education, we believe that education can engage the learner's brain to the fullest extent when students follow a cycle of concrete experience with their subject, reflection on their experience and connecting it to their prior knowledge, generation of their own abstract hypotheses about their experience and testing their hypotheses through action, which produces a new sensory (concrete) experience.” (http://www.case.edu/artsci/biol/people/zull.html)

In other words, there is some evidence that the learning cycle is built into the structure of the brain!

David & Alice Kolb run Experience Based Learning Systems, Inc., and there are lots of useful resources at their website, including the Experiential Learning Theory Bibliography, which is a stunning resource for anyone wanting to study this area in depth.


Ardley, B., & Taylor, N. (2010). The student practitioner: Developing skills through the marketing research consultancy project. Marketing Intelligence & Planning, 28(7), 847-861.

Bobot, L. (2010). Teaching sales and negotiation with combining Computer-based simulation and case discussions. Marketing Education Review, 20(2), 115-122.

Brennan, R., & Pearce, G. (2009). Educational drama: A tool for promoting marketing learning? International Journal of Management Education, 8(1), 1-10.

Hunter-Jones, P. (2012). The continuum of learner disengagement: Ethnographic insights into experiential learning in marketing education. Journal of Marketing Education, 34(1), 19-29.

Inks, S., Schetzle, S., & Avila, R. (2011). Taking the professional sales student to the field for experiential learning. Journal for Advancement of Marketing Education, 19(1), 35-47.

Karns, G. (2005). An update of marketing students' perceptions of learning activities: Structure, Preferences, and Effectiveness. Journal of Marketing Education, 27(2), 163-171.

Kayes, C. D. (2002). Experiential learning and its critics: Preserving the role of experience in management learning and education. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 1(2), 137-149.

Kolb, A. Y., & Kolb, D. A. (2005). Learning styles and learning spaces: Enhancing experiential learning in Higher Education. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 4(2), 193-212.

Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential Learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Young, M. R., Caudill, E. M., & Murphy, J. W. (2008). Evaluating experiential learning activities. Journal for Advancement of Marketing Education, 13, 28-40.

Zull, J., E. (2002). The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning. VA: Stylus: Sterling.


You will find a series of podcasts and vodcasts on experiential learning by David and Alice Kolb here: https://www.haygroup.com/leadershipandtalentondemand/video/details.aspx?id=303

References to Vos article.

Ackerman, D.S. & Hu, J. (2011). Effect of type of curriculum on educational uutcomes and motivation among Marketing students with different learning styles. Journal of Marketing Education, 33(3): 273-284.

Brennan, R. (2012) Teaching marketing at university level: A review of the research. Higher Education Academy (not yet published).

Frontkzak, N. (1999). A paradigm for the use, selection and development of experiential learning activities in marketing education. Marketing Education Review, 9: 25-33.

Ganesh, G., & Qin, S. (2009). Using simulations in the undergraduate Marketing capstone case course. Marketing Education Review, 19(1), 7-16.

Henry, J. (1989).“Meaning and practice in experiential learning” in Weil, S & McGill, I. (Eds) Making sense of experiential learning, SRHE & OU Press, Milton Keynes: 29-33.

Karns, G. (2006). Learning style differences in the perceived effectiveness of learning activities. The Journal of Marketing Education, 28, 56-63.

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.

Kolb, D. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Kolb, A. & Kolb, D. (2007) ‘Experiential learning theory: A dynamic, holistic approach to management learning, education and development’, in Armstrong, S. J. & Fukami, C. (Eds.) Handbook of Management Learning, Education and Development. London: Sage Publications.

Martinez, M. A. (1998). An investigation into successful learning: Measuring the impact of learning orientation, a primary learner-difference variable, on learning (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Brigham Young University, Provo, UT.

Martinez, M. (2005). Learning orientation questionnaire - Interpretation manual (Includes LOQ Case Studies).http://www.trainingplace.com/source/research/LOQPKG-Manual2005.pdf

Papert, S. (1980). Mindstorms: Children, computers, and powerful ideas. New York: Basic Books.

Richhart, R., Church. M., & Morrison, K. (2011). Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Jossey-Bass.

Schibrowsky, J.A. & Peltier, J.W. (1995). The dark side of experiential learning activities, Journal of Marketing Education, 17(1), 13-24

Sherwood, A.L. (2004). Problem-based learning in management education: A framework for designing context, Journal of Management Education, 28(5), 536-557.

Smith, L.W. & Van Doren, D. (2004). The reality-based learning method: A simple method for keeping teaching activitiesr and effective. Journal of Marketing Education, 26(1), 66-74.

UKCES (2008) UK Commission for Employment and Skills - Employability Skills Project. Review of evidence on best practice in teaching and assessing employability skills. Available at:


Young, M. R., Caudill, E. M., & Murphy, J. W. (2008). Evaluating experiential learning activities. Journal for Advancement of Marketing Education, 13, 28-40.


[1] See for example Henry, 1989; Papert, 1980; Sherwood, 2004; Smith & Van Doren, 2006; Diamond, Koernig, & Iqbal, 2008; Metcalf, 2010; and Ackerman & Hu, 2011.

[2] See for example Rubin, & McIntyre, 1971; Kolb; 1984; Kolb & Kolb, 2007

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