Deeper Learning Through Worked Examples

Nowadays, one can search in YouTube to find how a specific do-it-yourself task is done. From fixing appliances to minor renovations, homeowners need not learn by trial and error, saving money and time, and avoiding costly mistakes and grief. Learning through worked examples likewise demands a lower cognitive load than inquiry but objections against this learning method remain. One common complaint is that students only learn superficially through worked examples. Worked examples can indeed appear as mere recipes that one can simply follow without real understanding.  Thus, when facing another task that is not exactly identical to the one illustrated, a transfer of knowledge often fails. Learning through worked examples, however, can drive deeper learning, but this requires proper implementation.

Showing someones how a task is done is effective in learning that specific task. Providing worked examples, that is, demonstrating to students how a particular problem is solved, comes with a decent effect size on learning (Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. New York: Routledge.). Going beyond just showing students steps in solving a problem, however, can bring even stronger effects on learning. One example is shown below:

Above copied from
Alexander Renkl (2014)
Learning from worked examples: How to prepare students for meaningful problem solving.
In V. A. Benassi, C. E. Overson, & C. M. Hakala (Eds.). Applying science of learning in education: Infusing psychological science into the curriculum. Retrieved from the Society for the Teaching of Psychology web site:

The above example shows students two ways of solving a problem and prompts the student to choose which one is easier to understand. This worked example therefore requires the student to not only look at how a problem is solved but also self-explain the solutions. This added feature enhances the effect of worked examples on learning according to research. Renkl provides a list of principles that can help make the most out of worked examples. These principles are:

Above copied from
Renkl, A. (2014), Toward an Instructionally Oriented Theory of Example-Based Learning. Cogn Sci, 38: 1–37. doi:10.1111/cogs.12086

Each principle comes with qualifications. Learning from worked examples is indeed an area of education that has been thoroughly researched. It may not sound as sexy as discovery-based learning, but there is no doubt that example-based learning is one of the most powerful learning methods we have.