Using worked examples in the classroom can be an incredibly effective learning tool for your students, helping to reduce cognitive load and support skill development.
As a high-impact teaching strategy, including worked examples in lessons focuses students on the learning process, rather than the result (1). And when students stop focusing on the answer and spend time understanding the process, magic happens.
In this article, we'll look at the benefits of using worked examples, before providing you with some ideas for tasks you can use in your classroom.
What are worked examples?
Learning by example has been used to pass on knowledge for centuries. When we refer to ‘worked examples’ we’re talking about step-by-step demonstrations of the stages needed to solve a problem or complete a set task (1).
This strategy is often recommended by cognitive load theory, as it helps students acquire new knowledge with as little mental effort as possible (2). Based on the “borrowing and re-organising principle”—an inherent way of processing information—this approach helps students borrow new information from their teacher, and re-organise it with any prior knowledge before moving it into their long-term memory (3).
Doing this allows students to gain new content and skill knowledge, which can be transferred to other similar problems—which is something we want students to be able to do independently and confidently (4).
Typically, educators will work through a worked example as a whole class or small group strategy and explain each step along the way. From here, students can use these worked solutions to tackle other tasks and problems. This is particularly helpful when they are completing homework, doing independent review, or trying to gain more confidence (1).
This strategy is notably beneficial when teachers use a series of worked examples that increase in difficulty, as it helps students master the content as it becomes more challenging and complex (1).
Advantages of worked examples
There is a large body of evidence supporting worked examples as a way to reduce students' cognitive load and therefore their ability to understand and solve similar problems (5).
This becomes known as the “worked example effect” which states that after studying similar problem structures, students were able to replicate the problem-solving process on other questions (5).
However, there is ongoing debate amongst educators around the efficacy of this pedagogical approach on subjects containing structured problems. For example, in mathematics, as opposed to more open-ended subjects such as English and History (5).
The worked example effect can help improve students' ability to solve mathematical problems. Barbieri et al. (9) found that worked examples improved students' equation-solving ability and, of particular significance, their ability to anticipate errors when solving similar types of problems.
Similarly, Perez’s (5) research also found that using worked examples helps students gain mastery for solving comparable problems. And in turn, reducing time spent on future problems, limiting trial and error methods, and having no statistically significant impact on further mistakes. This meant students were able to tackle known and unknown questions without additional errors and in a much faster time!
But what about in subjects where the answers are not black and white, but may be various shades of grey?
Rourke and Sweller (6) looked at the effect of worked examples in art class. Here, they found that worked examples help to reduce student cognitive load and support students to solve problems more efficiently. This is based on the principle that students new to a topic or subject matter lack the required prior knowledge and lexical language required to tackle the task, therefore forcing their working memory into overdrive (6).
In addition, research has been conducted in the subject of English, where students are regularly required to write essays. The content knowledge for an essay is one aspect, but students also need the necessary skills on how to write a complete and powerful essay. Kyun et al. (7) found that using model essays as a form of worked examples helped students' overall writing and understanding. In addition, they found that this was particularly helpful for students who found the content more challenging and may be a good strategy for differentiation (7).
Let’s put the research together. No matter what type of subject you’re teaching, or the nature of the tasks you provide your students, using worked examples will help learners:
- understand the content more easily
- and, be able to translate this knowledge into other unseen problems.
While sometimes asking students to figure it out on their own makes sense, helping students recognise patterns and understand the learning process can be a more enjoyable way to teach and learn.
Using worked examples in the classroom
Modelling examples are where the educator illustrates how to solve a problem or complete a task. This can be either in person as a whole class strategy, used for small group differentiation, or pre-recorded and uploaded to online learning platforms for students to watch and re-watch.
This strategy can be particularly useful for both content and skill acquisition. For example, modelling examples can be used to solve a mathematical problem or identify key skills needed to correctly analyse sources in History class.
You see, you do
Rotating between worked examples and independent questions is a great way to build confidence in students, check for misunderstandings and provide formative feedback (8). It also allows students to immediately practice what they have learnt, removing the need to recall a large amount of information and problem-solving strategies at once (8).
If you find that the worked example is quite long and overbearing, you can always break it down into smaller, more manageable chunks. By doing so you may start by modelling the first step of the problem and then ask students to do the same before moving on to the next step!
If you feel that your students are ready to take a more challenging step, faded worked examples might be the right strategy for your class.
Eventually, you want students to move away from worked examples and develop the necessary problem-solving skills to tackle any unseen problem without aid. To do this, you can fade out worked solution steps for students to then deploy their critical thinking skills and fill in the gaps (9).
Start by simply removing a portion of each step, or some steps entirely. Do this slowly until your students no longer need the scaffold (8). You may find that they need to go back and use some earlier worked examples and that’s okay! In doing this, they are identifying a learning gap and working to close it.
Make mistakes—on purpose!
If you have taught even one lesson in your life you’ll know students love to point out when you’ve made a mistake. So if it gives them great joy, why not turn it into a learning experience?
As students progress with their understanding, you can include worked examples where they need to identify any errors (8). Using work from previous years is an easy way to do this. You could also demonstrate low, medium and high-scoring work which serves to scaffold current student attempts.
This approach can also open up any discussions around common whole-class misunderstandings or frequent errors, allowing educators to address issues early and on a large scale.
Rather than throwing students into the deep end and asking them to swim without giving them a kickboard, worked examples will help them develop the necessary skills to approach all different types of questions of varying difficulty. In addition, it helps build their confidence which is always a joy to see.
Keen to implement high impact strategies in your classroom? But not sure where to start?
Discover the ultimate guide to HITS—an exploration of ten high impact teaching strategies, condensed into short chapters and paired with practical tips, tricks and templates to embed into your teaching instruction.
Sarah-Eleni Zaferis (Bachelor of Education and Science) writes on all things pedagogy, teaching strategies, student and teacher wellbeing. As a high-school educator herself, she is passionate about exploring the ways that educators can put time back in their day while boosting student engagement, motivation, and academic achievement.
- (1) The Department of Education and Training, 2022, High impact teaching strategies (HITS), Victorian Government
- (4) Ngu, B. H., & Phan, H. P, ,2021, Learning linear equations: Capitalizing on cognitive load theory and learning by analogy. International Journal of Mathematical Education in Science and Technology
- (3) Adeniji, A and Baker, P, 2022, Worked-examples instruction versus Van Hiele teaching phases: A demonstration of students’ procedural and conceptual understanding, Journal on Mathematics
- (2) Sweller, J. 2011, Cognitive load theory. In J. P. Mestre & B. H. Ross (Eds.), Cognition in education (pp. 37–76). Elsevier Academic Press
- (5) Perez, R, 2020, "You Tell Me How The ell Me How They Work": First-Y ork": First-Year College Composition ear College Composition Instructors' Purposes and Practices for Choosing and Using Worked Examples, University of Central Florida
- (9) Barbieri, C, Booth, J. Bengali, K. McCann, N. 2021, The effect of worked examples on student learning and error anticipation in algebra, Instructional Science
- (6) Rourke, A, and Sweller, J, 2009, The Worked-Example Effect Using Ill-Defined Problems: Learning to Recognise Designers’ Styles, Learning and Instruction,
- (7) Kyun, S, Kalyuga, S and Sweller, J, 2013, The Effect of Worked Examples When Learning to Write Essays in English Literature, Journal of Experimental Education
- (9) Renkl, A, Atkinson, R and Grobe, S, 2004, How fading worked solution steps works- A cognitive load perspective, Instructional Science
- (8) Mulholland, K, 2022, How to use worked examples effectively, Tes magazine