I’m reading e-Learning and the Science of Instruction by Ruth Colvin Clark and Richard E. Mayer. I’ve admired Clark for years; she energetically and effectively applies research to the problem of learning at work.
One strategy they recommend for elearning (and that you’ll find applies in other situations) is the use of worked examples.
A worked example is a step-by-step demonstration of how to perform a task or solve a problem.
That means that in some cases, a worked example can look a lot like a job aid. Especially for procedural tasks (those you perform the same way each time), worked examples are natural ways to show specifically how to accomplish some task.
Clark and Mayer offer four guidelines:
- Replace some practice problems with worked examples.
- Apply good practice when using text, audio, and graphics in worked examples.
- Provide diverse, job-realistic worked examples to help build mental models.
- Train learners to self-explain as they use worked examples.
Practice: less can be more
Remember homework? It’s an attempt to strengthen the use of procedure skills. Clark and Mayer cite research (as they do throughout the book) to suggest that you can save learning time by replacing some practice with worked examples.
“One [caveat] is that worked examples are only effective if the learner studies them.” So design some worked examples as completion problems: partly-worked examples that the learner finishes.
Other approaches: make the worked example interactive — like, say, a widget that allows the learner to change one or more factors and see the result.
The authors point out that worked examples seem to benefit novices more than they do people already skilled in a topic.
The media can work
I heard more than an echo of Ten Steps to Complex Learning. (That’s no coincidence; the book cites research by Ten Steps co-author J. J. G van Merrienboër.) Clark and Mayer advocate applying sound principles for media use when you create worked examples. For instance:
- Integrate text with graphics; don’t restrict text to a caption at the edge.
- Use audio to expand on visuals; don’t use it to narrate text on the screen.
- Personalize. Use conversational tone. Use virtual agents (like a coach who addresses the learner).
Act like work
It’s almost depressing to think this point needs stressing. When you create worked examples, make sure they involve realistic tasks that people face on the job. (All the more reason to involve typical performers in the design, if you ask me.)
And vary the examples. That’s more than changing the names; change the structure of the example. Doing so helps you approximate the range of problems that show up on the job, where not everyone comes in asking the same thing.
…When teaching tasks that require judgment and problem-solving–tasks known as far transfer–more than one example will be needed…
Thre is no one right method for performing these tasks, since each job situation will be different. Solving these far-transfer tasks, whether in highly structured domains such as programming…or in more ill-defined areas such as sales…requires more flexible knowledge in long-term memory.
Interestingly, worked examples help to lower extraneous cognitive load (the mental burden imposed by the course design). A variety of examples adds to the intrinsic cognitive load, which can improve learning.
The idea is that the learner works at figuring out what the different examples have in common, and thus builds up her own mental model for the skills in question.
“Successful learners can explain worked examples to themselves, and their explanations focus on the principles behind the examples.”
So Clark and Mayer suggest that a virtual coach can demonstrate how to work through a worked example. In other words, the worked example is an example of explaining a worked example. From the text:
- (Onscreen text in a quality-control unit)
Take 4 sequential widgets off the line every hour for 24 hours. These are your subgroups.
- (Jim, the onscreen virtual coach, in audio:)
First, I notice that the subgroups are selected on a regular basis–four in a row, every how.
Here’s what I think is worthwhile about the use of worked examples (and about the book generally):
- It’s based on research, not someone’s preferred way to present.
- It works for both procedural and non-procedural skills.
- It suggests that design does, in fact, matter, so that even an advocate of informal learner can benefit by applying the principles to things meant to foster that learning