Learning on Your Own, Learning with Others, Learning from Examples

What is the best way to learn? This is an important question for educators. Some are attracted to the notion of inquiry-based learning, in which students are given the opportunity to solve problems on their own. The notion of collaboration is also attractive. In this case, it is hoped that students learn from each other when they work together. Lastly, there is the traditional option: learning by example. A paper scheduled to be published in the Journal of Educational Psychology addresses this question by performing a controlled experiment in Year 7 mathematics classes in an Indonesian school in Magetan, East Java. Their results suggest that learning from examples works best. In addition, students learning collaboratively is found to be somewhat detrimental when students are learning from worked examples.

The above findings are summarized in a figure provided by the authors:

Above copied from
Retnowati, E., Ayres, P., & Sweller, J. (2016, December 19). Can Collaborative Learning Improve the Effectiveness of Worked Examples in Learning Mathematics?. Journal of Educational Psychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/edu0000167
One of the reasons why worked examples are more effective than requiring students to solve problems on their own is the high cognitive load required by inquiry. This should not be surprising. As adults, on do-it-yourself projects are home, it makes the task a lot easier if we are shown examples on how a project is done. It is way more difficult to figure out how things work from scratch. The fact that individual learning seems superior to collaborative learning when it comes to worked examples demonstrates that peer effects can be negative. A worked example shows how a problem is correctly solved. This can be cancelled if a more influential peer during collaboration misunderstands the worked example. Working together as opposed to working individually is better when it comes to inquiry-based learning. However, this appears to be true only with low-complexity tasks. When the task becomes complex, working together is no different from working individually presumably because no one in the group is truly able to address the complicated task. With multi-step tasks in algebra, it appears that learning by example is more effective.

We often raise our eyebrows on traditional teaching. Such attitude, unfortunately, is not based on evidence.