The Importance of Worked Examples

John Sweller (1998) discussed the relationship between working memory (the limited space in which we think and process information) and long-term memory (a huge storehouse of vocabulary, concepts and procedures). It is widely accepted, through an array of cognitive science studies, that there are some limitations of the working memory:

  • Almost all information is lost after 30 seconds.
  • Limited to a small number of elements.
  • Usually estimated at seven, but may be as low as four (plus or minus one).
  • When processing information, may be as low as two or three items (depending on complexity).
  • However, the long-term memory has a potentially limitless capacity (although it’s hard to retrieve stuff).

Therefore, it is imperative that those in the educational profession support students to overcome or address these potential barriers. There are three ways Sweller suggests that this can be done:

  1. Use of worked-examples (step-by-step demonstration of how to perform a task or how to solve a problem) to support working memory.
  2. Practise to automaticity (concepts and procedures become habitual).
  3. Place the development of long-term memory at the heart of everything we do.

At Durrington High School Kate Blight was using worked examples to support the students with working out the perimeter of an algebraic triangle. Firstly, Kate used a visualiser to model the procedural knowledge required to tackle the problem, using the metacognitive strategy previously taught. This not only highlighted the importance of the steps required but also the need, of the students, to be aware of procedural knowledge coupled with the subject knowledge. Kate then gave students a copy of the worked example along with a similar question. The students then completed the question independently. Giving each student an individual worked example limited the extraneous load (unhelpful. Badly designed instructions and the way the information is presented to the learner) of the task. This then ensured the students could use all of their working memory to attempt the problem.

The are many different situations, tasks or concepts that would benefit from the use of worked examples, below are a few steps to follow in order to maximise the effectiveness of them:

  1. Model the processes live when devising a worked example (the procedures are just as important as the content).
  2. Explicitly talk through all of the processes (even the simple steps) whilst modelling the example.
  3. Limit extraneous load by giving students worked or partially worked examples to have on their desks (just leaving the answer on the visualiser or the whiteboard will cause unnecessary barriers to working memory).
  4. Give the students a similar problem using your worked example as a scaffold.
  5. When appropriate, strip the scaffold back to ensure the level of challenge is suitable.

James Crane

James Crane is a Deputy Leader of PE and Dance at Durrington High School.  He is also a Research School Associate for Durrington Research School and will be delivering our training on Memory and Metacognition. Details of our 2019-20 Training Programmes here

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