Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Ed Research: From Studying Examples to Solving Problems

Atkinson, Renkl, Merrill: Transitioning From Studying Examples to Solving Problems: Effects of Self-Explanation Prompts and Fading Worked-Out Steps [pdf] [edit:fixed link]

I'm sharing this paper for two reasons. First, the suggested modifications require close to zero added instructional time and energy. Always a win. Second, it is a good illustration of one of the reasons I read so much research. I don't consider myself an instinctive teacher. Many of you will read this and be like, "Well.....duh." Me? Not so much. I have to put deliberate effort into improving what I do and stuff like this isn't as obvious to me (until I read it) as I'd like it to be.

Summary: The researchers combined worked examples with self-explanation prompts at each step to help facilitate far transfer.

Worked examples are something that most teachers use. They've got a low instructional cost, both in terms of time and energy. When students are working on solving problems in class, I will tape a few answer keys will the problems worked out around the room so they can check when they're done or when they're stuck. It's effective. The problem is that worked examples, while very good for near transfer (problems that are similar to the example) have been pretty disastrous for far transfer. Which totally makes sense since usually students are learning steps rather than engaging in the problem.

The researchers did two specific things to improve upon the standard work example.

Fading: The steps in the worked examples would be removed in reverse order. So the last step would be removed, followed by the second to last step, and so forth until the student did not need the examples anymore. Makes total sense but not something I normally do. My problem solving scaffolds go from the full structure (entire worked example) to being completely removed (solving independently). In an earlier study, one of the authors (Renkl) found that this worked well for near transfer but not for far. This study in the paper was designed to help remediate this problem.

Self-explanation prompts: In addition to the backward fading procedure, the authors added self-explanation prompts to each step. These were computer based examples so those prompts consisted of selecting a rule/principle from a multiple-choice set. Here's a pic from the paper:

Adding this prompt increased both near transfer and far transfer when compared with just backward fading.

There's an interesting discussion at the end of the paper about cognitive load. Previous researchers found mixed results for similar treatments. The authors speculated that cognitive load may be an issue. In one study, the examples were spread out over multiple pages and in another participants were asked to type in the principles rather than just selecting them.

Cognitive load theory is interesting but often misapplied. But that's a post for another day.


  1. Is it possible to fix the link? The server says the article can not be found. Thanks!

  2. I think backward fading makes sense, but it only makes sense that it will help for problems where you start at the beginning and move forward. Not many problems worth solving are like that. We got to fade from somewhere, I'm just not sure backwards is generally good, or just good for those kinds of problems.

    I think there's also quite a bit of stuff on self-explanation including in literacy/reading and learning science from diagrams in science texts. I think it makes sense a lot in the same way that reciprocal teaching makes sense--both involve a shift in epistemic role of the learning from absorber to constructor and even to authority.

  3. @Anonymous - Fixed. Thanks.

    @Brian - I think worked examples only work well for linear problems.That being said, they work very well for those types. The idea behind backward fading is there's a smaller gap to close to get to the end point. Fading the beginning leaves a practically infinite range of first steps to choose from. Also, you're the focusing on "How to get to step 2" rather than keeping the end goal in mind. Thanks for the comments.