The use of templates, samples, and other kinds of examples in education has a long and well-respected history. Even those who are unfamiliar with the pedagogical reasons behind the use of such learning aids are well versed in their effectiveness. How many times do we ask a friend to use a word in a sentence (thus exemplifying its meaning) so we understand what it means? How often do we ask a colleague to demonstrate how to perform a task on the computer so that we can learn it ourselves? We learn from examples all of the time, in the so-called real world, and in part that stems from what we do in the classroom as well. Why is it, then, that we draw the line at certain uses of examples? Why are we comfortable with the use of examples in the mathematics classroom, but not so much in the English classroom? This essay will explore the use of templates and other examples in education, with a particular eye to addressing the question of why some examples are given more credibility than others.
Mathematics is the discipline which is perhaps best known for its use of examples (and non-examples) as learning aids both in and out of the classroom (Selden & Selden, 1998). Any time a new concept is introduced in math classes around the world, countless examples are provided to students to help them operationalize the concept, as well as to help them see how formulae and other aspects of problem-solving are employed in particular situations. Taken a step further, studies of various learning strategies (e.g. Dahlberg & Housman, 1996, as cited in Selden & Selden, 1998) found that example generation was the most powerful aid to study of all types investigated; that is to say, by creating their own examples, students experienced one of the most powerful learning techniques in existence.
Other disciplines use examples as well, such as chemistry (e.g. demonstrations of what happens when one chemical meets another) and other hard sciences. However, they can be more difficult to find in the humanities and other such disciplines. In part, this is due to the difficult nature of creating examples for certain subjects; how might one exemplify World War II, for instance? In part, though, there seems to be an underlying bias toward understanding that students might need examples in certain fields (i.e. mathematics and the hard sciences) because those fields have been deemed inherently difficult, while simultaneously believing that students should not need such examples in other fields because the knowledge should be more readily transferable from lectures and textbooks to students' minds.
This is unfortunate, however, because research shows that the use of worked examples in instruction can reduce the overall cognitive load that can be overwhelming (and thus ineffective) when learning new concepts, tasks, or other information (Van Gog, Paas, & Sweller, 2010, pp. 375-376). In fact, "worked examples are more effective in facilitating learning and transfer compared to conventional problem solving, and are often more efficient in their requirements of time or mental effort" (Van Gog, Paas, & Sweller, 2010, p. 376). The use of worked examples in the classroom has been consistently shown to be highly effective, particularly for learners who have low previous knowledge in the relevant area (e.g. Kalyuga et al. 2000, 2001, 2003, as cited in Atkinson & Renkl, 2007, p. 376), and particularly when their use is seen as a tool to be used primarily in the introduction of new material (e.g. Kalyuga 2001, as cited in Atkinson & Renkl, 2007, p. 376).
Certainly, there exists a great diversity of ways in which this research about the effectiveness of learning from worked examples can be put into play in the classroom; and just as with any pedagogical technique, some applications are more effective than others. For example, throwing endless examples of how to solve a quadratic equation at a student without incorporating sufficient time for the student to practice on her own is arguably ineffective; on the other hand, studies have shown that using worked examples trumps even tutoring situations in which students are assisted in solving problems on their own with a tutor (Salden et al, 2009, as cited in Van Gog, Paas, & Sweller, 2010, p. 376). Time and again, the use of worked examples is shown to be superior even to such conditions as are generally believed to be "high-powered" learning situations (e.g. tutoring). The weight of research appears to suggest that we learn in large part – and quite effectively – through the use of examples, which makes sense given that psychology has long informed us that we are social animals and, because of this fact, we learn best from such socially-driven situations as role modeling. Viewed from this perspective, worked examples are models from which we learn.
Given the clear, research-supported advantages of learning from examples, it makes sense that we apply this knowledge to disciplines beyond mathematics and science. History instructors who show dramatizations of past battles and other significant events are doing one version of this. English instructors who incorporate model essays and other texts into their classes – models of specific essays which they have assigned – is one way they express this concept of learning through worked examples. Instructors in all fields, in fact, can incorporate their own versions of examples into their classes as a way to enhance student learning – and not just "a way," but in fact a well-researched and highly supported way to do so. At present, however, many instructors decline to do this, and in fact look disparagingly upon students who seek out their own examples. It is hoped that with time, and further research, the stigma placed upon the use of worked examples in the classroom will diminish.
Atkinson, R.K., & Renkl, A. (2007). Interactive example-based learning environments: Using interactive elements to encourage effective processing of worked examples. Educational Psychology Review, 19(3), 375-386.
Selden, A., & Selden, J. (1998). The role of examples in learning mathematics. Mathematical Association of America. Retrieved from http://www.maa.org/t_and_l/sampler/rs_5.html
Van Gog, T., Paas, F., & Sweller, J. (2010). Cognitive load theory: Advances in research on worked examples, animations, and cognitive load measurement. Educational Psychology Review, 22(4), 375-378.