How can we use worked examples to help students see what success looks like – and participate themselves?

D Royce Sadler’s classic article encouraged teachers to help students to self-monitor: to understand what they need to do and work towards achieving it, monitoring the quality of their work as they complete it. Sadler noted how hard it is to convey teachers “guild knowledge” of what a good piece of work looks like to students. He argued that: “The indispensable conditions for improvement are that the student comes to hold a concept of quality roughly similar to that held by the teacher, is able to monitor continuously the quality of what is being produced during the act of production itself, and has a repertoire of alternative moves or strategies from which to draw at any given point. In other words, students have to be able to judge the quality of what they are producing and be able to regulate what they are doing during the doing of it.” Sadler noted two ways to show students what a good piece of work looks like: “descriptive statements and exemplars. While neither of these is sufficient in itself, a combination of verbal descriptions and associated exemplars provides a practical and efficient means of externalising a reference level.” He also argued that students could better understand how to improve their work if they had the chance to evaluate work themselves.

Sadler, D. (1989). Formative assessment and the design of instructional systems. Instructional Science, 18(2), pp.119-144.

About the same time, Herbert Simon was testing how powerful worked examples can be. His curiosity was piqued by incidents like this: “A student who was late for class missed the lecture . . . but at the end of the class looked at the problems worked by another student. When the tardy student was tested, we were surprised to see that he worked the test problems correctly. Apparently he had learned by studying the worked-out examples. How generalisable is the result? How efficient is the process?” Simon and Xinming Zhu found that students who received worked examples learned more accurately and quickly than through “conventional learning” – probably, they argued, because students are attending to learning more closely when concentrating on examples and trying to identify what makes them effective.

Zhu, X., and Simon, H. (1987). Learning mathematics from examples and by doing. Cognitive Instruction 4: 137-166.

A more recent review captures the findings of a range of studies since then that have tested how much of a difference worked examples and explanations of them make. The reviewers noted: “Although asking learners to study worked examples has been shown to be an effective means of instruction, successful learning from worked examples does not always occur naturally. For example, learners often simply acknowledge the information presented in worked examples without striving towards a deeper understanding. Therefore, learners usually need help to process the worked examples effectively.” The researchers saw three components of using worked examples with students:
• Formulating a problem
• Examining steps to complete the problem – possibly missing some out and asking students to complete these steps themselves
• Sharing a final, correct answer with students

The researchers found that the additional explanation teachers offer didn’t make a huge difference to how much students got from the examples they saw: the key thing was getting students thinking hard about the examples, not the words that teachers added, perhaps simply by asking students to formulate their own explanations for why a worked example worked.

Wittwer, J. and Renkl, A. (2010). How Effective are Instructional Explanations in Example-Based Learning? A Meta-Analytic Review. Educational Psychology Review 22(4), pp 393–409.