Date on Master's Thesis/Doctoral Dissertation


Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph. D.


Psychological and Brain Sciences

Degree Program

Experimental Psychology, PhD

Committee Chair

DeCaro, Marci

Committee Co-Chair (if applicable)

Cashon, Cara

Committee Member

Cashon, Cara

Committee Member

Hindy, Nicholas

Committee Member

Lyle, Keith

Committee Member

Ralson, Patricia

Author's Keywords

exploratory learning; productive failure; STEM education; undergraduate education; higher education


In exploratory learning, students engage in an exploration activity on a new topic prior to instruction. This inversion of the traditional tell-then-practice order has been shown to benefit learning outcomes, especially conceptual knowledge and preparation for future learning, but not always. In three studies, the current work examines whether the type of exploration activity impacts learning mechanisms and outcomes, on the topic of gravitational field in undergraduate physics classrooms. Activities using either contrasting cases (CC) or a rich dataset (RD) are compared in two instructional orders, explore-first (EF) and instruct-first (IF). Learning outcomes measured procedural knowledge, conceptual knowledge, and performance using a dynamic preparation for future learning (PFL) assessment that included a learning resource within the posttest. In addition, the current studies investigated process level measurements of interest and enjoyment, knowledge gap awareness, and cognitive load. Study 1 revealed that students in the EF-CC condition had better conceptual knowledge and PFL scores than students in the IF-CC condition. Study 2 investigated learning outcomes following an RD activity in EF and IF orders in two separate physics classrooms (algebra-based physics for pre-medicine majors, and calculus-based for engineering majors). Procedural and conceptual knowledge overall was improved by the EF order, but only in the calculus-based course; PFL showed no differences. Study 3 compared learning outcomes from the two activities directly in a 2 (order: EF, IF) × 2 (activity: CC, RD) study design. Overall, the CC activity resulted in better student learning than the RD activity. However, an effect of instructional order was not found, potentially due to a methodological error. Across the three studies, interest and enjoyment did not differ by condition and did not predict learning outcomes. Knowledge gap awareness was higher for students in the EF order than the IF order for both activities, and negatively predicted learning outcomes. Cognitive load was negatively correlated with conceptual and PFL learning outcomes, but only in Study 3. Overall, results indicate that the type of activity could moderate learning outcomes, with any instructional order. More work is needed to investigate the boundary conditions impacting the benefit of exploratory learning, including activity type, amount of guidance during the activity, and the type of instruction.