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)

Danovitch, Judith

Committee Member

Danovitch, Judith

Committee Member

Ross, Edna

Committee Member

DeCaro, Daniel

Committee Member

Chastain, Raymond

Author's Keywords

exploratory learning; interactive simulations; educational technology; cognitive load; STEM education


Typical college lectures follow a direct instruction framework, where instructors deliver a lecture, followed by an activity. Exploratory learning flips this routine by providing students with an activity prior to instruction. Research suggests that this inversion benefits students’ conceptual understanding and ability to transfer their knowledge. The majority of exploratory learning tasks in the literature are problem-solving activities. The current work investigates the use of computer-based simulations during exploratory learning, and whether manipulating the cognitive load of the activity impacts learning. In Experiment 1, undergraduate students (N=66) were randomly assigned to explore a simulation-based circuit construction activity prior to instruction (explore-first) or receive instructions on the topic prior to the activity (instruct-first). The learning assessment consisted of conceptual knowledge and transfer of knowledge to a similar topic. Participants in the instruct-first condition scored higher on the assessment than participants in the explore-first condition, and reported lower cognitive load. In Experiment 2, participants received one of two versions of the exploration activity, designed to provide stronger guidance and reduce intrinsic or extraneous cognitive load. Undergraduate students (N=195) were randomly assigned to one of four conditions based on order (explore-first or instruct-first) and cognitive load reduction type (intrinsic load reduction or extraneous load reduction). Participants in the intrinsic load reduction conditions scored at an equal level on conceptual knowledge, and higher on transfer, compared to participants in the extrinsic load reduction conditions, regardless of order. Across both experiments, participants in the explore-first conditions reported motivational benefits (higher curiosity and higher perceived knowledge gaps). Yet the instruct-first approach led to higher learning, suggesting that these components are not enough for effective exploratory learning, even when reducing intrinsic cognitive load through guidance. Simulation environments may be too complex for students to effectively explore the deep problem features that otherwise provide conceptual advantages.