Develop thinking skills with concrete examples

Last month, I reviewed Sweller’s theory of cognitive load in light of recent research updates and its continued relevance in a world dominated by digital learning. This month, I will delve into a single effect of theory: the concrete example. As the learning profession searches for new ways to engage learners in virtual environments, the real world example might be an overlooked tool in our instructional design toolkits.

Concrete examples provide targeted scaffolding

Practical examples are a subset of scaffolding, an instructional design strategy that provides decreasing support as learners gain experience with a content area. Scaffolding is useful when content or behavior is complex and requires many integrated concepts or steps that must be applied together to achieve a goal.

You probably experimented with scaffolding when you learned to ride a bike. In the beginning, you started with training wheels to get the feel of the activity. After a while the training wheels came loose, but someone ran alongside you to make sure you didn’t fall and corrected your balance if you started leaning too far a side. Finally, you were all alone. This type of scaffolding works well for activities based on specific physical actions, such as athletics, music, construction, and technology. It works where there is a strong practical component to what is being taught.

But many jobs require people to learn mental processes. This is where working examples come in. A worked example is a step-by-step demonstration of how to accomplish a task or solve a problem, with explanations of each step or step, referring to a single instance to teach the general principles involved. While Sweller’s original research focused on student solving math problems, this approach lends itself to many applications for adult learners, such as:

  • Process training
  • Systems training
  • Project management
  • Security and compliance
  • Contract management
  • Purchase


The advantages of the worked example are numerous:

  • Reduced cognitive load. By keeping the focus on one step at a time, the learner has less new content to absorb at each step.
  • Less stress. Learners feel overwhelmed when presented with too many variables at once.
  • Increased confidence. Although an unsolved problem can be daunting, knowing that they are looking at a problem that has already been solved gives learners a sense of confidence in their ability to understand the process by understanding each step of the process.

Worked examples are not scenarios or case studies

Real world examples are different from case studies or practical scenarios due to the high degree of scaffolding provided. While the case studies and scenarios challenge the learner to find the right path forward, the real-life examples leave no guesswork. The correct path is shown to them.

Worked examples are most appropriate for novice learners

As Sweller has stated in his previous work, novices respond well to worked examples because they get the most out of the benefits of this approach. For a more experienced learner, the worked example can slow them down, forcing them to follow step by step as they would learn more by applying the same content to multiple open-ended situations. These learners react negatively to worked examples because their perceived extraneous cognitive load increases with the distraction of seeing the basic steps they have already mastered.

The differences between the needs of novice and experienced learners are well established in educational psychology. We recently saw this understanding reconfirmed when the brain waves of novice and experienced learners were found to be markedly different when working on the same problem. As with any good instructional design, understanding the needs of your learning audience is key to developing a successful design.

The worked examples must be very relevant

The danger of focusing attention on a single solution to a problem is that it must be the correct solution under those circumstances and must have wide enough application to be relevant in a wide range of potential real-world situations that the learner will meet. If your worked examples illustrate exceptional solutions, your learners will draw the wrong conclusions to apply the information in their daily processes. The best way to avoid this risk is to work closely with subject matter experts who can help you achieve that “real-world” relevance.

Typically, learners will need several worked examples

Even when highly relevant, a single demonstration may not provide all of the nuances that learners experience to master the illustrated process, so be sure to work with your subject matter experts to develop multiple illustrations of various conditions likely to occur. produce.

Combine worked examples with other learning experiences to maximize learning

The worked example is a powerful tool when provided at the right time in a learner’s journey. However, even when delivered to novices, it is generally more effective in combination with other instructional design approaches. Consider where the worked examples might fit into your scaffolding plan, eg. If the worked example is the training wheels, what else will learners need once these wheels are removed? The next step in their learning journey could be a more open-ended case study, for example, or practical examples where answers are only provided in return once the learner has attempted to provide their own solution.

Incorporate reflection to deepen knowledge about learning

Working examples are great for teaching repetitive, process-based procedures where you need people to follow specific steps. When combined with reflective questions, following these examples can also help learners discover the whys of the solutions so they can better understand the purpose of each step.

Consider using incorrect examples as a next step

Once learners begin to progress beyond the novice stage, you can use the worked example by showing an incorrect solution and asking the learner to identify where the example is going wrong. This approach encourages a broader application of basic concepts and strengthens analytical skills.

The working example has been around for a long time, but you may have neglected to include it in your instructional designs. It can be a useful addition to your novice training programs in many subjects.

About Shirley L. Kreger

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