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ATD Blog

Build Thinking Skills With Worked Examples

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Last month, I reviewed Sweller’s cognitive load theory in light of recent updates to the research and its continued relevance in a world dominated by digital learning. This month, I will dig deeper into a single effect of the theory: the worked example. As the learning profession looks for new ways to engage learners in virtual settings, the worked example could be an overlooked tool in our instructional design toolboxes.

Worked Examples Provide Targeted Scaffolding

Worked examples are a subset of scaffolding, an instructional design strategy that provides decreasing support as learners gain experience with a content area. Scaffolding is useful when the content or behavior is complex and requires many integrated concepts or steps that must be applied together to achieve a goal.

You probably experienced scaffolding when you learned how to ride a bike. At first, you started with training wheels to get the feel for the activity. After a while the training wheels came off, but someone ran beside you to ensure you didn’t fall and corrected your balance if you started to lean too far to one side. Finally, you were on your own. This type of scaffolding works well for activities based on specific physical actions, such as athletics, music, construction, and technology. It works where there is a significant hands-on component to what is being taught.

But many jobs require people to learn mental processes. That’s where worked examples come in. A worked example is a step-by-step demonstration of how to complete a task or solve a problem, with explanations of each stage or step, referencing a single instance to teach the general principles involved. While Sweller’s original research focused on students solving math problems, this approach lends itself to many applications for adult learners, such as:

  • Process training
  • Systems training
  • Project management
  • Security and compliance
  • Contract management
  • Purchasing


The benefits of the worked example are many:

  • Reduced cognitive load. By keeping the focus only on one step at a time, the learner has less new content to absorb at each step.
  • Reduced stress. Learners feel overwhelmed when they are presented with too many variables at once.
  • Increased confidence. While an unsolved problem might be intimidating, knowing that they are reviewing a problem that has already been solved gives learners a feeling of confidence in their ability to understand the process by understanding each step along the way.

Worked Examples Are Not Scenarios or Case Studies

Worked examples are different from case studies or practice scenarios due to the high degree of scaffolding provided. While case studies and scenarios challenge the learner to find the right path forward, worked examples leave no guesswork. The correct path is spelled out for them.


Worked Examples Are Most Appropriate for Novice Learners

As Sweller stated in his earlier work, novices respond well to worked examples because they get the most benefit from the advantages of this approach. For a more experienced learner, the worked example may slow them down, forcing them to follow step-by-step when they would learn more by applying the same content to multiple open-ended situations. These learners react negatively to worked examples, as their perceived extraneous cognitive load increases with the distraction of seeing basic steps that they have already mastered.

The differences between the needs of novices and experienced learners are well-established in educational psychology. We recently saw this understanding reconfirmed when brain waves of novice and experienced learners were shown to be distinctly different when working on the same problem. As with all great instructional design, understanding the needs of your learning audience is critical to developing a successful design.

Worked Examples Must Be Highly Relevant

The danger of focusing attention on a single solution to a problem is that it must be the right solution in those circumstances and should have broad enough application to be relevant across a wide range of potential real-world situations that the learner will encounter. If your worked examples illustrate exceptional solutions, your learners will draw the wrong conclusions for applying the information in their everyday processes. The best way to avoid this risk is to work closely with subject matter experts, who can help you achieve that “real-world” relevance.


Typically, Learners Will Need Multiple Worked Examples

Even when highly relevant, a single demonstration may not provide all the nuances that learners experience to master the process being illustrated, so be sure to work with your subject matter experts to develop several illustrations of various conditions likely to occur.

Combine Worked Examples With Other Learning Experiences to Maximize Learning

The worked example is a powerful tool when provided at the right time in a learner’s journey. However, even when delivered to novices, it is usually more effective in combination with other instructional design approaches. Consider where worked examples might fit in your scaffolding plan, for example. If the worked example corresponds to the training wheels, what else will learners need once those wheels have been removed? The next step on their learning journey might be a more open-ended case study, for example, or practice examples where the answers are only provided as feedback once the learner has attempted to provide their own solution.

Incorporate Reflection to Deepen Learning Insights

Worked examples are terrific for teaching repetitive, process-based procedures where you need people to follow specific steps. When combined with reflective questions, following these examples can also help learners uncover the why behind the solutions so they can form a deeper understanding of the purpose behind each step.

Consider Using Incorrect Examples as the Next Step

Once learners begin to advance beyond the novice stage, you can use the worked example by showing an incorrect solution and asking the learner to identify where the example goes wrong. This approach encourages a wider application of basic concepts and builds analytical skills.

The worked example has been around for a long time, but you may have neglected to include it in your instructional designs. It can be a useful addition to your training programs for novices in many subjects.

About the Author

Margie Meacham, “The Brain Lady,” is a scholar-practitioner in the field of education and learning and president of LearningToGo. She specializes in practical applications for neuroscience to enhance learning and performance. Meacham’s clients include businesses, schools, and universities. She writes a popular blog for the Association of Talent Development and has published two books, Brain Matters: How to Help Anyone Learn Anything Using Neuroscience and The Genius Button: Using Neuroscience to Bring Out Your Inner Genius.

She first became interested in the brain when she went with undiagnosed dyslexia as a child. Although she struggled in the early grades, she eventually taught herself how to overcome the challenge of a slight learning disability and became her high school valedictorian, graduated magna cum laude from Centenary University, and earned her master’s degree in education from Capella University with a 4.0.

Meacham started her professional career in high-tech sales, and when she was promoted to director of training, she discovered her passion for teaching and helping people learn. She became one of the first corporate trainers to use video conferencing and e-learning and started her own consulting company from there. Today she consults for many organizations, helping them design learning experiences that will form new neural connections and marry neuroscience theory with practice.

“I believe we are on the verge of so many wonderful discoveries about how we learn. Understanding what happens in the brain is making us better leaders, teachers, parents, and employees. We have no limits to what we can accomplish with our wonderful brains— the best survival machines ever built.”
—Margie Meacham

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I enjoyed reading this article and definitely see how this could help and make learning something new easier.
Thanks, Valencia. The very best way to learn these things is to implement it in your work as soon as possible before the Egginghaus Forgetting Curve creeps in. (A subject for another day ...)
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Hi Margie, applying the worked example concept can help in many ways of learning. I think this article is following the worked example. I am studying for my ATPD cert and I find reading articles stating ideas for considering cognitive load theory in ISD is working an example. However, I understand the practice of transferring learning for math has been around for quite some time. I learned math very well by the step-by-step process and reviewing worked examples. I use the same method today.
That's true, William. In fact, Sweller and his colleagues originally developed their theory by studying the best ways to help kids learn math. However, the theory has wide applications beyond math and is widely recognized as a proven approach, based on decades of peer-reviewed studies. That's why it's called a theory. In science, this means you can rely on it as a model for your work. Congratulations on your pursuit of the ATPD certification!
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