Worked-example effect

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?

"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). Studying worked examples are 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.

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

Evidence for the worked-example effect

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 learners that 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.

Developing effective worked examples

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 one may prevent split-attention by presenting text as audio.

In addition, to considering the media, one should consider the learners when developing worked example based instruction. 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 suffer the consequences of this redundancy. This negative learning effect is described as the “Expertise reversal effect.” Thus it is important to consider the learner as well as the media while developing worked examples, else learners may not perform as expected.

Finally, 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.

See also


  • 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.
  • 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, p. 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
  • 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
  • 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

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