Worked-example effect

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The worked-example effect is a learning effect predicted by cognitive load theory (Sweller, 1988). According to Sweller: "The worked example effect is the best known and most widely studied of the cognitive load effects" (Sweller, 2006, p. 165).

What is a worked example?[edit]

"A worked example is a step-by-step demonstration of how to perform a task or how to solve a problem" (Clark, Nguyen, Sweller, 2006, p. 190). Worked examples are designed to support initial acquisition of cognitive skills through introducing a formulated problem, solution steps and the final solution (Renkl, 2005). Studying worked examples is an effective instructional strategy to teach complex problem-solving skills (van Merriënboer, 1997). This is because example-based instruction provides expert mental models, to explain the steps of a solution for novices.


Note: this illustration should show point C at the right side of the triangle.

Worked examples like that above are commonly found in mathematics or geometry textbooks, but they are also used in other fields. Worked examples had been developed for music, chess, athletics, and computer programming (Atkinson, Derry, Renkl, & Wortham, 2000).

Evidence for the worked-example effect[edit]

Sweller and Cooper were not the first to use this form of instruction, but certainly they were the first to describe it from a cognitive load perspective (Sweller & Cooper, 1985; Cooper & Sweller, 1987; Sweller, 1988).

While studying problem-solving tactics, Sweller and Cooper used worked examples as a substitute for conventional problem-solving for those learning algebra. They found that learners who studied worked examples, performed significantly better than learners who actively solved problems (Sweller & Cooper, 1985; Cooper & Sweller, 1987). Sweller and Cooper (1985) had developed worked examples as a means of limiting problem solving search.

It is important to note, that Sweller & Cooper (1985) used worked-out example-problem pairs as opposed to individual worked examples. Renkl (2005) suggests learning from worked-out examples is more effective when a series is used. Pillay (1994) found that worked examples showing 3 intermediate problem stages were more more effective than showing only one but suggested that the distance between stages needs to be small enough to allow students to connect them without having to create their own linkages.

However Quilici & Mayer (1996) found that providing learners with three examples of each problem type, as opposed to one, did not result in any differences in students ability to sort subsequent problems into the appropriate types. As Wise & O'Neill, pointed out, this is not to say additional guidance will never lead to learning gains, we just cant assume it always will.

There is also some debate as to how complete the worked example needs to be. Paas (992) found that learners in a "completion" condition, who were given a problem only halfway worked out, performed just as well on test problems as those given the problems fully worked.

Developing effective worked examples[edit]

Ward and Sweller (1990) suggested that under some conditions "worked examples are no more effective, and possibly less effective, than solving problems" (p. 1). Thus it is important that worked examples be structured effectively, so that extraneous cognitive load does not impact learners. Chandler and Sweller (1992) suggested an important way to structure worked examples. They found that the integration of text and diagrams (within worked examples) reduces extraneous cognitive load. They referred to this single modality, attention learning effect as the split-attention effect (Chandler and Sweller, 1992). Tabbers, Martens, & Van Merriënboer (2000) proposed that one may prevent split-attention by presenting text as audio.

Renkl (2005) suggests that students only gain deep understanding through worked-out examples when the examples: (1) are self explanatory, (2) provide principle-based, minimalist, and example-relation instructional explanations as help (3) show relations between different representations (4) highlight structural features that are relevant for selecting the correct solution procedure (5) isolate meaningful building blocks.

Not all worked examples are print-based as those in the Tarmizi and Sweller study. Lewis (2005) for instance, proposed animated demonstrations are a form of worked example. Animated demonstrations are useful because this multimedia presentation combines the worked example, and modality effects within a single instructional strategy.

For Which Learners?[edit]

As it turns out, worked examples are not appropriate for all learners. Learners with prior knowledge of the subject find this form of instruction redundant, and may suffer the consequences of this redundancy. This has been described as the expertise reversal effect (Kalyuga, Ayres, Chandler, & Sweller, 2003). It is suggested that worked examples be faded over time to be replaced with problems for practice (Renkl, Atkinson & Maier, 2000). Thus it is important to consider the learner as well as the media while developing worked examples, else learners may not perform as expected.

Since worked-out examples include the steps toward reaching the solution; they can only be used in skill domains where algorithms can be applied (mathematics, physics, programming, etc.)(Renkl, 2005). For creative pursuits such as interpreting poems, or learning contexts when their is an infinite number of potential confounding factors such as conflict resolution, effective leadership, or multicultural communication, solution steps are more difficult to describe and worked-out examples may not be the most effective instructional method.

See also[edit]


  • Atkinson, R.K., Derry, S.J., Renkl, A., & Wortham, D.W. (2000). Learning from examples: Instructional principles from the worked examples research. Review of Educational Research, 70, 181–214.
  • Clark, R.C., Nguyen, F., and Sweller, J. (2006). Efficiency in learning: evidence-based guidelines to manage cognitive load. San Francisco: Pfeiffer.
  • Cooper, G., & Sweller, J. (1987). Effects of schema acquisition and rule automation on mathematical problem-solving transfer. Journal of Educational Psychology. 79(4), 347–362.
  • Kalyuga, S. Ayres, P., Chandler, P. & Sweller, J. (2003). The expertise reversal effect. Educational Psychologist, 38(1) 23–31.
  • Lewis, D. (2005). Demobank: a method of presenting just-in-time online learning in the Proceedings of the Association for Educational Communications and Technology (AECT) Annual International Convention (vol 2, pp. 371–375) October 2005, Orlando, FL.
  • Moreno, R., Reisslein, M., and Delgoda G.E. (2006). Toward a fundamental understanding of worked example instruction: impact of means-ends practice, backward/forward fading, and adaptivity. In FIE '06: Proceedings of the 36th Frontiers in Education Conference, 2006. retrieved November 28, 2007 from
  • Renkl, A. (2005). The worked-out examples priniciple in multimedia learning. In Mayer, R.E. (Ed.), The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.View in a new window
  • Renkl, A., Atkinson, R.K., & Maier, U.H. (2000). From studying examples to solving problems: Fading worked-out solution steps helps learning. In L. Gleitman & A.K. Joshi (Eds.), Proceeding of the 22nd Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society (pp. 393–398). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc. retrieved February 6, 2010 from

Paas, F. (1992). Training strategies for attaining transfer of problem-solving skill in statistics: A cognitive-load approach. Journal of Educational Psychology, 84, 429-434.

  • Pillay, H. (1994). Cognitive load and mental rotation: Structuring orthographic projection for learning and problem solving. Instructional Science, 22, 91-113.
  • Quilici, J.L., & Mayer, R.E. (1996). Role of examples in how students learn to categorize statistics word problems. Journal of Educational Psychology, 88, 144-161.
  • Smith, S.M., Ward, T.B., and Schumacher, I.S. (1993). Constraining effects of examples in a creative generation task, Memory & Cognition. 21: 837–845.
  • Sweller, J., & Cooper, G.A. (1985). The use of worked examples as a substitute for problem solving in learning algebra. Cognition and Instruction, 2(1), 59–89.
  • Sweller, J. (2006). The worked example effect and human cognition. Learning and Instruction, 16(2) 165–169
  • Tabbers, H.K., Martens, R.L., & Van Merriënboer, J.J.G. (2000). Multimedia instructions and cognitive load theory: Split-attention and modality effects. Paper presented at the National Convention of the Association for Educational Communications and Technology, Long Beach, CA. retrieved December 6, 2007 from [1]
  • Tarmizi, R.A. and Sweller, J. (1988). Guidance during mathematical problem solving. Journal of Educational Psychology, 80 (4) 424–436
  • Van Merriënboer, J. (1997). Training Complex Cognitive Skills: a Four-Component Instructional Design Model for Technical Training. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications.
  • Ward, M. & Sweller, J. (1990). Structuring effective worked examples. Cognition and Instruction, 1990, 7(1), 1–39. Sweller & Chandler, 1991
  • Wise, A. F., & O'Neill, D. K. (2009). Beyond More Versus Less: A Reframing of the Debate on Instructional Guidance. In S. Tobias & T. M. Duffy (Eds.), Constructivist Instruction: Success or Failure? (pp. 82–105). New York: Routledge.View in a new window