Use of Worked Examples

Does the best learning result from memorable experiences?

Worked examples session 4


Our working memory is high maintenance. Give it too little to play with and it begins to look for more interesting fodder. Give it too much to juggle and it’ll drop all the balls.

- Oldprimarytimer.


Getting this balance right with students in the classroom and when using worked examples, provided the framework for the discussion in this week’s session.

Many studies have shown that anything that adds demands on working memory (“cognitive load”) that is not essential for the desired learning will reduce that learning (Mayer and Moreno 2003, Mayer et al., 2008). Alleviating this extraneous load at the right level so that learning still requires some effort appears to be key success.

Regulating the load on working memory to two or three elements (Miller 1956) was discussed in depth with the general consensus that often the reduction to one element may be necessary depending on the ability of the students and the complexity of the task. In turn the complexity of the task has a large impact on the working memory and this was felt to be the case across subjects with examples shared even at A level where complex new tasks need to be broken down in exemplary stages.

As with any new task the reliance on prior knowledge can add cognitive load. The revisiting or refreshing of prior knowledge before embarking on the new learning can be easily overlooked or assumed to be present. Discussion took place on how prior knowledge was effectively revisited with the start of the lesson collectively used as an effective place to consolidate previous learning and create a sense of continuity (Barak Rosenshine).

The ideas of Mccrea (2017) on how to lessen the load on working memory and alleviate extraneous cognitive load include recycling learning structures and building routines in to lessons. Discussion here was rich on simple and easy strategies such as using reinforcing terminology. This could be as simple as using brainstorming as a method of putting down ideas but the essence is to stick with this method and not attempt to introduce different methods. Routines and structures can again be overlooked and underestimated in the part they play in consolidating learning.  

Looking at cognitive load and working memory reminds us that simple tweaks to the learning task should not be underestimated. Going back to basics and focusing on key aspects of learning such as memory are fundamental to improving practice in the classroom and making learning memorable.

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