Worked examples vs retrieval practice: which is best?

Research into worked examples and retrieval practice suggests their effectiveness may depend on teachers' learning goals

Marc Smith

GCSE revision: Should teachers use worked examples or retrieval practice?

A new study from the United States had examined two of the most popular learning techniques of the moment: retrieval practice and worked examples.

And researchers have discovered that their effectiveness might depend on the way teachers and students frame learning goals.

We often think of retrieval practice as testing, so it inevitably draws criticism from those who feel that young people are already tested too often. Yet techniques that can be described as retrieval practice vary enormously and are often used in the classroom.

Oral questioning is perhaps the most common and teachers engage in such retrieval practice instinctively. Low-stakes quizzes are common, while teachers can also present keywords as anagrams for pupils to solve.

Retrieval practice and worked examples

Meanwhile, interleaving worked example solutions and problem-solving exercises are part of a strategy that, like retrieval practice, is supported by a considerable amount of research findings.

One study, for example, found that worked examples not only improved performance on algebraic problems, but participants were also better at solving problems similar to the original worked example later (Sweller & Cooper, 1985).

According to Pashler, rather than solving lots of problems, students will learn more efficiently if they alternate between studying worked-out solutions and solving problems on their own.

When we incorporate these evidence-based techniques within models of instructional design (for example, cognitive load theory and load reduction instruction), learning becomes more purposeful and effective because they exploit the mechanisms that appear to be crucial for learning.

These include the ability to keep relevant information in long-term memory and to apply that information to new situations.

Helping GCSE revision

But are some of these techniques more effective at different stages of learning or when outcomes depend on specific criteria? Put another way, does the learning goal lend itself to a particular strategy – retrieval practice or worked examples?

This is the question investigated by Darren Yeo and Lisa Fazio, of Vanderbilt University in Tennessee (Yeo & Fazio, 2019). They set out to compare the effectiveness of two learning strategies – repeated testing or repeated study of worked examples.

In each case, the learning goals were to recall the information learned or to apply the information to a related problem.

This question also implies that retrieval practice and worked examples involve different cognitive processes. Cognitive science and educational research tend to focus on instructional events, such as recall and transfer, because they are observable and easily manipulated under experimental conditions.

More problematic are learning processes (eg, fluency building and sense-making) and knowledge components (eg, the building of schemas and associations) because they are often more difficult to observe.

These differences have led to the suggestion that retrieval practice may not be particularly useful for complex material such as worked examples.

The argument proposes that more complex learning often involves various types of related information that must be processed in working memory at the same time and that, for this type of learning, the testing effect doesn’t apply.

These arguments would indicate that choosing the most appropriate method of study is crucial for effective learning.

The outcomes

To answer their question, Yeo and Fazio had placed participants into one of two groups. The first group were asked to remember the text of a maths worked example and to recall it after five minutes or one week later. They asked the second group to learn a problem and then apply it to a new problem.

Within each group, some volunteers engaged in repeated study while others used repeated testing. The learning goals in each group were, therefore, different – to remember the example or to apply the worked example to a novel problem.

The findings showed that the learning goals did impact how effective the strategies were. When the goal was to remember the facts of the worked example, those who engaged in retrieval practice recalled more a week later than those who repeatedly studied the text.

But when the goal was to learn a flexible problem-solving procedure, those participants who studied worked examples displayed better problem-solving performance.

The participants in the study were all university students so we might want to remain cautious about how this will transfer to the school classroom.

Nevertheless, the study indicates that the most effective strategies might depend on the specific learning goal and that it could be wise for teachers to remain mindful of this.

Marc Smith is a chartered psychologist and teacher. He is the author of The Emotional Learner and Psychology in the Classroom (with Jonathan Firth). He tweets @marcxsmith

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