Cognitive Load Theory in practice: worked examples

Have you heard of Cognitive Load Theory? If you have, we’re not surprised, since this theory is fast becoming one of the most important theories in education. If you haven’t, don’t worry - we’ve got loads of information and resources to get you up to scratch, including our guide to Cognitive Load Theory, which contains everything we know so far.

Essentially, Cognitive Load Theory boils down to the fact that our working memory has limited capacity. This means that if students are students are presented with too much information, the learning process will slow down because students will experience what’s known as cognitive overload.

There are several really useful applications of Cognitive Load Theory in the classroom. For example, you may already have read our blogs on The Redundancy Effect, The Split Attention Effect, and The Transient Information Effect.

Cognitive Load Theory has also highlighted useful strategies such as worked examples and completion tasks. In this blog, we’re going to look at worked examples, and give you some tips so you can use them effectively in your classroom.

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What are worked examples?

Worked examples make use of a strategy known as scaffolding. Similar to the scaffolding used in construction, this consists of teachers using then gradually removing learning support to help students transition into independent learners. 

In the case of worked examples, this means giving a step-by-step demonstration of how to complete a task or solve a problem, with each stage thoroughly explained. This gives students the strategies they need to complete similar tasks and problems that involve the same steps. So, worked examples are really the first stage of scaffolding, when the most teacher support is provided. This is great for helping novice learners or beginners with a particular concept or topic.


How do worked examples help?

This research review examined research that looked at the effectiveness of worked examples. It found that over the years, lots of research conducted in laboratories has suggested that worked examples enhance student learning. Importantly, the review also found that more recent research conducted in real life classrooms has supported the effectiveness of worked examples too.

Research suggests that when students are given problems, often all their focus is placed on solving it, leaving little room in the working memory to remember the steps they used. Worked examples reduce this burden of information by providing the information that students need to know.

This means that while students are getting to grips with a topic, they don’t have to hold all of the information in their working memory at one time, thereby reducing cognitive load, and allowing them to transfer key information into their long-term memory.

For example, if you were going to do a worked examples around the use of apostrophes for young students, it may look like this:

Screenshot 2021-07-05 at 15.28.05

And likewise, if we were teaching French to older students, a worked example may look like this:

Screenshot 2021-07-05 at 15.28.21

This is so important that Barak Rosenshine made providing models and worked examples his fourth Principle of Instruction. As he argues, if you want students to actively engage with their learning and develop an important skill, you need to show them how to do it. Worked examples help students develop a clearer understanding of what’s being asked of them, and they free up working memory space, enabling students to focus more on the task at hand.


Cognitive Load Theory CPD workshop for teachers


Using worked examples in the classroom

So, worked examples are a great way to help your students learn effectively and efficiently. Here are a few practical tips for when using worked examples in your classroom:

  • Clearly and thoroughly explain each step of the worked example.
  • Consider giving students copies of worked examples, rather than leaving it up on a whiteboard, so that students don’t have to switch their attention back and forth (which could lead to The Split Attention Effect).
  • Encourage students to explain the steps of a worked example back to you, making use of the Protégé Effect.
  • Give students tasks that are very similar to the worked example, allowing them to practice and consolidate their knowledge.
  • As students gain confidence with worked examples, one idea is to provide worked examples with deliberate errors in, that students must spot or explain. Research suggests that this leads to greater conceptual understanding.
  • When students are confident with worked examples, move on to giving them completion tasks.
  • If adopting a mastery learning approach, where students must demonstrate a high level of understanding before moving on to a new topic, returning back to worked examples may be a good way of helping students who don’t initially achieve “mastery”.


Final Thoughts

Using worked examples is a simple and easy to use strategy to manage cognitive load in your classroom and enhance your students’ learning. They’re particularly helpful when students are ‘novice learners’, or beginners, in a particular subject.

To learn about more effective teaching strategies, check out our blogs on Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction.

Cognitive Load Theory CPD workshop for teachers

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