A fundamental problem of instructional engineering is: when should instruction provide students with assistance and when should it withhold assistance? We call this problem the assistance dilemma (Koedinger & Aleven, in press). The dilemma emerges because there are complementary benefits and costs of providing higher vs. lower levels of instructional assistance. Lower assistance challenges students to generate and construct knowledge on their own, but may leave them floundering, frustrated and wasting time. Higher assistance can provide students with information they will not generate on their own, but may reduce engagement or prevent formation of lasting memories.
In fact, the assistance dilemma is a central battleground of the education wars, with one side advocating more direct instruction and drill of basic skills, that is, higher assistance, and other side advocating more student initiative, construction, discovery, and learning by doing, that is, lower assistance. Our view is that the assistance dilemma will not be resolved by determining which side is right, but by specifying dimensions of assistance and, ultimately, identifying and fitting parameters along these dimensions to determine the optimal level of assistance given the instructional goal and the students' knowledge state relative to that goal.
Koedinger, K. R., & Aleven V. (in press). Exploring the assistance dilemma in experiments with Cognitive Tutors. Educational Psychology Review.