As part of my PhD reading, I have been getting to grips with “Cognitive Load Theory” by Sweller, Ayres and Kalyuga. Unfortunately, this is one of those academic books that are expensive and only really viable for those with access through a university library. It is unfortunate because the book is full of insights. The chapter on biologically primary versus biologically secondary knowledge is particularly rich.
However, here I will focus on the discussion of the use of worked examples. The study of worked examples was critical to the development of cognitive load theory. We shouldn’t run away with the impression that worked examples represent an optimal form of teaching. Yes, the effect has been measured many times and withstood replication. However, this is partly due to the fact that worked examples are pretty amenable to research and so have been studied a great deal.
I have learnt two significant concepts.
1. It is better to present worked examples one at a time
It seems that presenting three worked examples of different types of problem and then asking students to practice is less effective that presenting each worked example on its own, followed by practice of that type of example. It is obvious why this would be the case when viewed from the perspective of cognitive load and yet not obvious enough for me to figure this out for myself.
Typically, I present several variations on a problem type before asking students to practice because, well, that’s what I’ve always done. I am now working on ways to integrate worked examples and practice more thoroughly. I have started to present worked examples and then ask students to complete a very similar problem using the same set of steps. This has the additional bonus of highlighting the students who get off the bus at the very first stop and yet it is still useful for those with a little more insight; they have to follow the given process.
I am sure that Siegfried Engelmann has known this since about 1967 but, hey, I’m late to the party.
2. The worked example effect has been demonstrated in ill-structured domains
It not all about algebra. Ill-structured problems are those messy, liberal-arts-type tasks that have no simple problem states and solution steps. “Discuss the meaning of this passage,” is given as an example.
Here are a couple of experiments that are described in the book;
“Firstly, Rourke and Sweller (2009) required university students to learn to recognise particular designers’ styles from the early Modernist period using chair designs. It was found that a worked example approach was superior to problem solving in recognising these designs. Furthermore the worked example effect extended to transfer tasks in the form of other designs, based on stained glass windows and cutlery.
Secondly, in two experiments, Oksa, Kalyuga, and Chandler (2010) presented novices (Grade 10 students) with extracts from Shakespearean plays. One group was given explanatory notes integrated into the original text, whereas a second group had no such notes. Results indicated that the explanatory notes group outperformed the unsupported group on a comprehension task and reported a lower cognitive load… half of the students were provided model answers or interpretations to key aspects of the text. Those model answers are equivalent to problem solutions. In contrast, students with no explanatory notes were required to make their own interpretations, an activity equivalent to problem solving. The fact that the model answers resulted in more learning than requiring students to make their own interpretations in this very ill-structured domain provides strong evidence that the worked example effect is applicable to ill-structured problem domains.”
The book goes on to describe the effectiveness of model answers as worked examples that help English language learners to write English literature essays.
Get on it, English teachers.