Design effective worked examples to mitigate cognitive load

The use of worked examples in teaching is nothing new. It is not uncommon to see a worked example being used in a mathematics or physics lesson followed by a large number of practice questions. However, Sweller & Cooper (1985) propose that this may not be the most effective way to practice problem solving. Instead, an increase in the use of worked examples interleaved with a smaller practice set of questions may improve performance and save a considerable amount of time (Sweller & Cooper 1985; Zhu & Simon 1987).  This suggests that less is more. That it is about high quality incisive practice in which worked examples mitigates cognitive load by providing a model of succinct feedback to pupils to support knowledge acquisition (Sweller & Cooper 1985; Sweller & Chandler 1991). Nonetheless, worked examples are not all created equal.

Atkinson et al (2000) suggest that certain considerations must be reflected in designing high quality and effective worked examples. To limit the impact of cognitive load, worked examples should consider a) avoiding splitting the attention of the pupil among multiple sources, b) the sequencing of worked examples and c) how worked examples are used by the pupil (Atkinson, Derry, Renkl, & Wortham 2000).

Firstly, split attention occurs when a pupil’s focus is needed for multiple sources that are not integrated. This causes unnecessary cognitive load and impairs learning (Ward & Sweller 1990). Learners are unable to think of two different thoughts concurrently, therefore, they will divide their attention between the two or more sources (De Bruyckere, Kirschner & Hulshof 2015). The concern is that a pupil must read or observe one statement, hold it in their working memory, and then refer to the other source to make any connections. This becomes cognitively demanding, whereas, an integrated worked example combines the two or more sources which generates less demand on working memory (Tarmizi & Sweller 1988; Sweller, van Merrienboer & Paas 1998).

The same can be said when applying the split attention effect to different modes of worked examples – visual and oratory. Mousavi et al (1995) tested the effectiveness of three differently formatted presentation modes of worked examples – visual/visual, visual/auditory and simultaneous (a diagram was presented visually but further statements were presented both visually and orally). The outcomes of each experiment conclude that people’s processing time and problem solving performance was enhanced by integrated mixed-mode worked examples. However, there is a level of caution when using advance level of worked examples. Jeung et al (1997) research reinforces Mousavi et al (1995) conclusion, but only for low level worked examples. When more complex worked examples were used, Jeung et al (1997) find little or no effect of using a dual-presentation mode, though this significantly changes with the introduction of a visual cue to draw attention to certain steps. Cues can identify subgoals in the form of labels (Catrambone 1998). These labels create necessary chunks that guide pupils in stitching each step of the worked example together.

Secondly, the number of worked examples to explain the process needs to be taken in consideration. Sweller & Cooper (1985) experiments demonstrate that worked examples play an important role in learning. However, the use of more than one worked example may have a bigger impact (Reed & Bolstad 1991). Reed & Bolstad’s (1991) findings support the idea that two worked examples can have more of an impact as opposed to one or none worked examples being used. Though, what is also interesting from the evidence, is that it is not necessary to provide a worked example for every type of test problem. This suggests that pupils were able to transfer the information to a range of problems.

The next step is to consider the format in how worked examples will be studied. For instance, should worked examples and practice questions be blocked (example, example, example followed by practice, practice practice) or paired with the practice set (example – practice, example – practice, example – practice)? Trafton and Reiser (1993) set out to answer this question. The outcome of their study finds that example-practice took less time with fewer errors on testing than the blocked group. They recommend that a worked example is immediately followed by a similar problem to solve. This may sound onerous in teacher planning but it’s not about conventional thinking of mass practice it’s about incisive practice – less is more.

Thirdly is to consider the worked example’s surface story. For example, in mathematics, some problem solving questions set a scene but this can divide the problem in to two parts. One is the surface story itself and the other is the processes needed to solve it. In practice, Grosse & Renkl (2004, p. 357) infer that “different examples which share the same underlying structure, different surface stories are implemented. The same surface stories are then used with other problem types.” The result is that learners are less likely to rely on surface features and direct more focus to the structure (Quilici & Mayer 1996). In particular, novice learners will pay much more attention to the surface features of the problem and less focus on the structure (Atkinson, Derry, Renkl, & Wortham 2000). Consequently, valuable work memory space will be used which may lead to cognitive load.

Practice is always important but we need to consider the quality of the practice. It has been largely suggested and supported by research that the use of worked examples can provide incisive feedback to support schema acquisition and knowledge transfer. However, not all worked problems are created equal and if designed wrong may have the opposite desired effect. Therefore, greater emphasis and consideration must be placed on the planning and presentation of what knowledge and skills pupils must learn. Our working memory is very limited and all learning can be processed and transferred to long-term memory. Thus, effective planning of worked examples can ease the impact of cognitive load, placing more brain power on what is critical in the classroom – learning.



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