When Examples Can Harm Learning

One provocative section of Clark’s book is entitled, “When Examples Can Harm Learning.” This thought was anathema to me because I’m always pressing SME developers to include more examples in their instruction. I always argue that the examples are what bring the instruction alive, that they are easier for learners to remember because our brains are wired for narrative, not exposition.

Clark’s argument, though, is based on research around the expertise reversal effect. In studies, novices benefit from studying worked examples (for instance, completed math problems with all the work showing, perhaps annotated) before working on problems. Experts, though, do worse if practice problems are preceded by worked examples. Therefore, including examples in instruction aimed at learners with high prior knowledge depresses learning.

Fair enough. I’m not ready to give up advocating for examples with my SME developers yet, though. For one thing, the studies in this area contrast studying worked examples to solving problems. When SME developers are creating courses, where the focus can be more on information transfer than on skill-building, often the choice is not examples versus practice, but rather the choice is examples or no examples.

In other words, an instructor for an update course for experienced tax professionals might design a section describing the provisions of a new tax law. The question on the table is whether the instructor should follow the abstract description of the law with “let’s step through how this law would affect a sample client,” or whether including an example would be redundant for experts and therefore serve to depress learning. Clark would probably say that an exercise would be better than an example, but often developing examples is an easier sell with SME developers focused on knowledge transfer than developing interactive case studies, as the latter are time-consuming to develop and take up significant class time. Examples are quicker. However, naturally I’d stop pressing for more examples if I thought it was doing more harm than good, so this is an area I’ll have to give more thought/research to.

The other interesting element here is engagement. Learners tend to perk up during lectures when it appears that the instructor is moving from exposition to narrative. Storytime! But maybe there is an expertise reversal effect at play here as well? Perhaps experts find abstract exposition in their area of expertise more engaging than specific examples?


4 thoughts on “When Examples Can Harm Learning

  1. Rob Foshay

    Great topic, Bob!
    The trick here is that examples for experts are different than examples for novices. For experts, you want examples that illustrate attributes that are subtleties of interest to experts (which I guess makes them novices with regard to those attributes). How to find them? Gather war stories from conversations experts have with each other — NOT with novices. For the prices of a few beers, you have your expert-level examples!

  2. buellsmith

    Hello Bob,
    Thanks for your blog! I am new to reading your blog. I am currently attending Walden University for the Master’s program in instructional design and technology. Currently we are learning about Cognitive Information Processing Theory which is why this blog entry caught my eye. I agree with your assessment about using examples. We learn better when we can add meaning to the learning. In one of our texts we are using Learning Theories and Instruction, Jeanne Ormrod divulges the following information after several definitions and examples of different kinds of learning theories.
    “Meaningfulness improves learning and retention (Ormrod, 2008, pg 70).”
    I believe that examples, especially meaningful ones, would contribute and not harm learning.
    Also on another note, I used to work in creating distance learning for the National Guard. I was working in the art department ( creating graphics, diagrams, animations, and more) for the instructional system designers content and we also used SME’s who were active National Guard soldiers. We always used examples in the learning, whether it was to give information or to skill build.
    I look forward to reading more of your blog posts and learning as much as I can.

    1. robertmulcahy Post author

      Welcome. One of the big challenges I’ve faced in my career is the realization that what works for experts teaching novices is not necessarily the right recipe for experts teaching learners with significant experience. Always learning!

  3. Pingback: Speed Reading | Engaged

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