Cognitive Load Theory is More Than Worked Examples

For the last few months, I’ve been working hard on an essay about John Sweller’s cognitive load theory. This is, by no means, a comprehensive essay about CLT. I wanted to tell a very specific story in the piece — about how Sweller came to invent his theory, how he changed it so that it could better embrace greater complexity in classroom learning, and how he ultimately restricted the boundaries of his theory to avoid this complexity.

Something that I don’t talk much about in the piece are the implications of CLT for teachers of math. CLT is highly active in arguments about how best to teach math, and many who identify as “traditionalists” cite CLT to support their views. This, in turn, leads those who identify as “progressives” to seek to discredit CLT. I have no desire to negotiate this terrain.

Discussion of CLT, I find, often focuses on one specific teaching recommendation: worked examples. See, for example, Deans for Impact’s The Science of Learning report:

Screenshot 2016-04-10 at 12.17.58 PM.png

A closer look at the work of CLT, I think, complicates the focus on worked examples in several ways.

First, there are other ways that Sweller and CLT identifies for reducing cognitive load. In particular, Sweller has found that problems with non-specific goals (i.e. more open questions) are helpful for reducing cognitive load. You don’t often hear this aspect of Sweller’s work come up in debates, but I think that’s a shame, because I think both progressives and traditionalists could support the use of these sorts of questions.

Second, there was a period of Sweller’s career when he trained his eye on learning more complex skills in classroom environments. Though he eventually moved away from this work, during this time he noted that there can be issues with worked examples, when put into practice. For example, in 1998 he wrote (with his co-authors) that “A lack of training with genuine problem-solving tasks may have negative effects on learners’ motivation.”

“A heavy use of worked examples can provide learners with stereotyped solution patterns that may inhibit the generation of new, creative solutions to problems…For this reason, goal-free problems and completion problems…may offer a good alternative to an excessive use of worked examples.”

Further, work by researchers had found that worked examples can be bested by “completion” problems, where there is thinking left for students in the task. This is the work of van Merrienboer, which I also write about in the essay. Here’s a quote about worked examples from his research:

“…students will often skip over the examples, not study them at all, or only start searching for examples that fit in with their solution when they experience serious difficulties in solving a programming problem. … [In completion problems] students are required to study the examples carefully because there is a direct, natural bond between examples and practice.”

So CLT research has at least two alternatives to worked examples for novice learning: open questions and completion tasks. And research within CLT has identified motivational or practical issues with excessive use of worked examples — these are from papers that Sweller himself wrote.

(The truth is that, depending on how complex the skill we’re trying to teach is, van Merrienboer’s line of thinking opens up a great deal of possibilities beyond worked examples. While he’s opposed to throwing novices into the deep end, well, everyone should be opposed to that. Instead, he wants to find authentic, motivating tasks that are manageable for novices. For more, see his “Ten Steps to Complex Learning.”)

I don’t think it’s surprising that “worked examples” have earned outsized attention by educators. This is the same thing that happens when educators embrace research, in general. A few years ago I read Jack Schneider’s From the Ivory Tower to the SchoolhouseThe book is about why some research catches on with teachers, while most does not. He identifies four key characteristics of research that makes the jump to practitioners:

  1. Perceived Significance: It needs to be perceived as coming from reliable, important names. (e.g. “a bunch of Harvard researchers just found that…”)
  2. Philosophical Compatibility: The research needs to be in sync with the beliefs of the educators who embrace and share it.
  3. Occupational realism: It needs to be easy to put in immediate use.
  4. Transportability: It needs to be easy to share — tweetable, even.

While Sweller doesn’t have a name-brand research pedigree that is recognizable to us in the US, worked examples otherwise fits this framework perfectly. It’s a practice that is very realistic (most teachers are already using lots of worked examples and explanations), it’s very easy to share the idea, and for those who traditionalists who have embraced it it is very much ideologically safe.

That’s not a criticism of traditionalists who embrace worked examples — it’s just a point about how research gets shared in education. “Worked examples,” like “growth mindset” or “project-based learning,” fit Schneider’s framework quite well.

What this means, though, is that you have to listen carefully to hear about anything beyond worked examples when people talk about CLT. But this emphasis on worked examples does not fairly represent Sweller or CLT. There are a host of additional ideas and techniques that his and others’ CLT research has found: open questions, completion tasks, and motivational and practical issues with worked examples in practice.

You can’t really hope to change the way people talk about anything in education, let alone research. You can hope to dig a bit deeper and find a bit of understanding beyond the noise, though. That’s what this project has been about, for me. I’m excited to share it, and I’ll continue to add some thoughts about CLT over the next few weeks.


6 thoughts on “Cognitive Load Theory is More Than Worked Examples

  1. Just want to say that you have done some awesome work over the past few months and it has been a lot of fun to watch both of our views on CLT grow. Hopefully your views here will be echoed through the teaching sphere – that is CLT is a useful tool to help us think about how our students are learning in certain contexts, but like any other theory, it can’t explain everything there is to know about learning. I would be ecstatic if CLT was thought about more by teachers in the field, but feel this cannot happen until the community sees past the “worked-examples back-and-forth battle” we are currently having.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! That’s a kind thing to say.

      Hopefully your views here will be echoed through the teaching sphere

      This isn’t really a reply to your comment, but really just a reflection that reading your comment prompted from me. Anyway…

      I try not to think too much about outcomes when I write. You just try to write what you think is true and exciting, I think, otherwise you drive yourself crazy! In particular, I’m at pains to point out that I’m not an activist or an advocate. Sometimes it seems that when I talk to people online, they only know how to debate or advocate; some corners of the internet are at risk of losing the art of writing, listening and thinking together.

      But not the mtbos. mtbos4eva.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Nice to see more nuance. In a Dutch version of 10 Steps there were some 6-8 versions of problems, from reduced to original problem. It boils down to thinking about variations in product support (as opposed to process support). I always hope to instill some of that thinking in my student teachers. Transfer to different domains may be tricky though.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s