Teaching Practice

Inspiration instead of frustration: Increase students’ learning success with worked examples

12. October 2023

If we try to teach ourselves to do something – like baking a tart – we often use step-by-step instructions. Either from a recipe from a book or from video tutorials. That way we learn how each of the ingredients has to be processed and when. Worked examples like this not only help us in our day-to-day lives but can benefit students at university as well.

Worked examples generally consist of a problem that is formulated, steps towards solving it and then the final solution (Renkl, 2022). Specifically, that means that in the first step the learners receive the required definitions and explanations regarding new facts, principles or concepts. In a best-case scenario, several worked examples (containing the problem and the solution) are offered in the second step. What is key here is for these two steps to occur before students ultimately attempt to develop their own solutions (Roelle et al., 2023).

Who do worked examples help and who don’t they help?

This method is particularly suitable when initially acquiring cognitive skills (Renkl, 2022), so lecturers should use worked examples to introduce a principle or new rule. Presenting step-by-step solutions helps relieve students’ cognitive load. Students can generally take in, process and understand information better than they can without worked examples. The theoretical basis for this assumption is the Cognitive Load Theory.

However, not all students benefit from worked examples in the same way. It follows that the use of worked examples depends on the learners’ level of knowledge and ability. No positive effect arises for advanced learners. Scheiter et al. (2020) explain this expertise reversal effect by suggesting that the help offered is redundant and that this leads to learning obstacles. Furthermore, for advanced learners, the presentation of the support measures can lead to them only processing the information very superficially. This, in turn, leads to poorer learning performance.

A person running upstairs.

4 tips for designing worked examples

When developing and applying worked examples you should observe some design principles, otherwise the effectiveness of the worked examples will be in danger of going up in smoke.

  1. Present several worked examples: Students should be given a selection of worked examples where the key common aspects/structures/principles are particularly highlighted. However, this only helps the learner if the worked examples are actively compared (Roelle et al., 2023; Renkl, 2022).
  2. Integrate typical mistakes into the worked examples: Various studies revealed that elaborating on correct and incorrect solutions is more effective than only focusing on the correct ones. However, these need to be labelled and explained, particularly if the students do not have much previous knowledge (Roelle et al., 2022).
  3. Taper off the use of worked examples: To enable the transition to independent learning it makes sense to taper off the support provided by worked examples. You can do this by giving fewer steps towards a solution, for example. The learners then have to perform the rest of the steps by themselves. The final step is to solve problems independently (Roelle et al., 2023).
  4. When presenting worked examples graphically you should observe established design principles for learning media, of course (Renkl, 2022).

Two examples from practical experience

In the literature you often find worked examples from the fields of maths and chemistry (Kölbach et al., 2015; Scherrmann, 2015). This does not mean, however, that this method is unsuitable for students from other academic domains. It can also be used to show poetry analysis or how to deal with academic texts, for example.

Lecturers can not only present worked examples verbally or in writing but can also use podcasts or videos. Videos in particular offer the option of visualising facts and situations very well.

1. Law

The first worked example was prepared by Jana Simmel with the help of Explain Everything. In the lecture “Administrative Law I” held by Prof. Alexander Tischbirek students could look at several examples to review a legal action based on a specific case (analysis of the facts, jurisdiction of the court, admissibility and cause). The worked examples help the students learn to process and evaluate cases adequately in the academic field of Law (specifically administrative law).

2. Biology

The second worked example was developed by Philip Lechner in the course entitled “Physics for biologists and biochemists” held by Prof. Remco Sprangers. Many Biology students have problems with understanding the physical principles being dealt with and with finding correct solutions to relevant tasks. Here, the worked example helps them process the relevant exercises better and more easily.

Experiences from the SelVi@ur project

In the Selvi project (Supporting self-learning phases in lectures virtually and interactively), staff from different academic domains created worked examples and asked a total of 71 students about their experiences and user behaviour. The feedback regarding the worked examples was very positive; the examples contributed to a deeper understanding of the respective topics. Here, the interviewees particularly mentioned the step-by-step explanations in the videos as being helpful for their own learning process. Furthermore, the students primarily used the worked examples to create their own summaries or notes. Some students worked with the videos to prepare for exams and would like something similar to be offered in other courses as well.

The lecturers also gave a very positive assessment of the worked examples used. In their view, it was possible to use the videos to present even complex topics so that they could be understood. The lecturers particularly valued the worked examples as extra material for exam preparation. Therefore, the lecturers who took part will also continue to use the worked examples in future courses and will now produce even more videos on different topics in future.

Conclusion

Worked example are effective in learning and primarily help students who do not have much previous knowledge. For lecturers it is worth considering how far worked examples can be presented when it comes to important rules, principles or cases. Although they take time to prepare, it is worth the effort: once lecturers have produced examples they can use them repeatedly in their courses for a long period.

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The project “Supporting self-learning phases in lectures virtually and interactively (SelVi@ur)” is sponsored by Stiftung Innovation in der Hochschullehre (innovation in higher education foundation).


References

Kölbach, E., Maier-Richter, A. & Sumfleth, E. (2015). Lösungsbeispiele – Eine besondere Form von Lernaufgaben zur Unterstützung individuellen Lernens in den Naturwissenschaften. CHEMKON, 22(1), 7–14.

Renkl, A. (2022). The worked example principle in multimedia learning. In R. E. Mayer & L. Fiorella (Hrsg.), The Cambridge handbook of multimedia learning (3. Aufl., S. 231–240). Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/9781108894333

Roelle, J., Lachner, A. & Heitmann, S. (2023). Lernen aus Lösungsbeispielen. In H. M. Buhl & K. B. Klingsiek (Hrsg.), Lernen. Theorien und Techniken (S. 115–124). utb. https://doi.org/10.36198/9783838558981

Scheiter, K., Richter, J. & Renkl. A. (2020). Multimediales Lernen: Lehren und Lernen mit Texten und Bildern. In H. Niegemann & A. Weinberger (Hrsg.), Handbuch Bildungstechnologie. Konzeption und Einsatz digitaler Lernumgebungen (S. 31–56). Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-662-54368-9

Scherrmann, A. (2015). Lernen mit Lösungsbeispielen im Mathematikunterricht. Eine empirische Untersuchung zur Datenauswertung im Unterricht [Dissertation, Pädagogische Hochschule Ludwigsburg]. Springer Spektrum. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-658-11807-5


Suggestion for citation of this blog post: Puppe, L. (2023, October 12). Inspiration instead of frustration: Increase students’ learning success with worked examples. Lehrblick – ZHW Uni Regensburg. https://doi.org/10.5283/ZHW.20231012.EN

Our authors introduce themselves:

Dr. Linda Puppe
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Dr. Linda Puppe is a research assistant at the Centre for University and Academic Teaching (ZHW) at the University of Regensburg. She is the project coordinator for SelVi@ur (Supporting self-learning phases in lectures virtually and interactively) with a focus on methodological guidance and module development.

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