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?