Using worked examples: An alternative approach

Written by: Robbie Burns | Published:
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Task design is a crucial element of teaching if we are to consolidate learning and encourage independence. In the second of two articles, Robbie Burns suggests further ways we can use worked examples to support pupil progress

In my first article, I explained how we can structure practice so that students can learn and remember more of what we teach them through worked examples.

I focused on how we can use backward fading to promote independence over time and applied this to maths and English examples. In this second article, I want to propose how we can use worked examples differently, drawing once again on the work of Sweller and his colleagues (2011), and recent work by Ollie Lovell (2020).

Worked example: Alternation

It is common to see practice structured using worked examples through backward fading, sometimes known as “I do, we do, you do”. However, Sweller et al (2011) make clear that this is not the only way to use the strategy. Indeed, it might not even be the best way.

They state: “The most efficient method of studying examples and solving problems (is) to present a worked example and then immediately follow this example by asking the learner to solve a similar problem.”

This stands in stark contrast to how worked examples are often used, as Ollie Lovell (2020) has said. The “I do, we do, you do” structure implies that students are not even ready to solve problems until much later in the process.

Does this mean that backward fading of worked examples is an inefficient way to structure practice? By no means. The examples I provided in my first article do have their place. However, it is worth noting a few issues that arise with the “I do, we do, you do” approach.

Contrary to their intention, by backward fading worked examples, students may struggle to connect the new learning and the process of solving problems due to the lack of space in working memory.

If teachers have just taught a new idea or process and then proceed to explain how it is done twice or three times before slowly fading out the scaffolding, students may struggle to retain the new knowledge, the steps to solve the problems, the misconceptions, and the various interplay of the task they are about to do independently.

Strangely enough, backward fading might even be too cognitively overloading for some students to understand how they apply learning to their new context because of the sheer amount of information that is given to them.

Linked directly to this, another problem is the time it may take between students learning something new and using it in their own struggle with problems.

If a new idea and/or process is explained, modelled, completed with students, this might take up to 20 minutes of the lesson before students then engage in practice tasks by themselves. What little knowledge they did have in their working memories has all but likely disappeared.

What does this mean? Does it mean that we should never use worked examples with backward fading. No, I don’t think it does. But it does mean we need to be conscious that it has its limitations. And that there are other ways to use worked examples.

Alternating worked examples

Building on the Sweller et al quote above, there is another way to think about using worked examples that is worthwhile. It is known as alternating.

Quite simply, the teacher does a problem, then a student does a problem, and then repeat until students are able to do each problem entirely by themselves. The grid below shows a comparison between the two ways worked examples can be structured.

Worked examples with backward fading

Worked examples with alternation

Teacher provides instructions of new idea or concept

Teacher completes problem

Teacher models worked example

Student completes problem

Students practise worked example (slowly fading key elements out)

Teacher completes problem

Students practise similar problems

Student completes problem (and so on…)

There are some important caveats to the alternating approach. The first is student readiness to complete a problem. In response, it is important to note that it is likely that with each example the student completes, there should be scaffolding which decreases, with teachers providing less and less support over time.

The other missing piece with the alternating approach (which the backward fading approach incorporates) is the drawing out of misconceptions before students complete their own tasks.

The alternating of worked examples takes a different stance than the backward fading approach. The alternating approach uses student mistakes that the teacher knows and expects them to make to draw out misconceptions from their work. I will illustrate this more fully in the examples I provide for maths and English below.

Worked examples with alternation in practice: Maths

To show a comparison between backward fading and using alternation, I use long division.

As shown in the diagrams above, to provide scaffolding it might be that students attempt the identical question that the teacher just modelled with some elements still complete.

After this, it might be that students then complete another question that is identical to the one the teacher has just modelled with only the method lines and steps to follow available to them. This then provides an excellent opportunity to root the misconception teaching in what students are getting wrong, rather than something that was pre-planned.

Who knows, students may not struggle bringing down the digits in this particular class. If that’s the case, it may not be worth teaching it in that moment as they are learning a new process.

Then, over time, less and less scaffolding can be provided. Teachers might feel the need to do one example with students and then enable them to do one independently.

Worked examples with alternation in practice: English

Using the example of using conjunctions to combine sentences, a teacher can explicitly model using each conjunction and then immediately afterwards provide an opportunity for students to practise applying what they have just learned.

Again, because it is a brand new idea, a teacher may provide scaffolding for students to enable them to make a prompt start. Over time, scaffolding can be lessened as student confidence grows. However, this should not begin too soon – it is far better to achieve a high success rate earlier on in the instruction of new content.

Backward fading or alternation: Which is best?

Worked examples are an effective way for students to grasp how the knowledge that experts have, and which they have just learned about in isolation, is applied in context.

Both backward fading and alternation are useful for teachers to use in unit and lesson planning. Which one is best? Well, my view is that it is up to the teacher to decide according to the needs of their students.

However, as a general principle, it is important that backward fading should only be used when new knowledge and new processes are relatively simple and do not have too many steps for students to learn.

If there are too many steps, worked examples with backward fading can be a redundant use of lesson time since students will not be able to apply new learning independently.

A good way to adapt backward fading – or the “I do, we do, you do” approach – to mitigate this problem is to break-down the new learning and the new processes into smaller steps, providing smaller doses of practice and learning of new content over time.

Likewise, the alternating approach needs to be used carefully. For our lowest attainers, listening and watching a teacher complete a problem once and then being expected to complete one immediately after is likely to be overwhelming and they may lose motivation.

This, again, can be mitigated by teachers explaining and modeling a problem to the whole class, releasing them to do one independently, and then working with low attaining students during this time as an additional scaffold.

Final word

Across these two articles I have tried to showcase how worked examples can be used in two different ways and presented general pedagogical models for each. As I close, I want to present a few reflective questions for both leaders of teaching and teachers to consider.

Questions for leaders

  • Is there a clear agreed approach to worked examples? How are they currently used?
  • Do staff understand how they can support students to transfer new content to complex problems and tasks across a range of subjects?
  • How can students be supported through simple processes such as “I do, we do, you do”, to work independently on complex tasks?

Questions for teachers

  • In what ways do you ensure that students can access complex material?
  • How do you currently use worked examples?
  • When would you choose to use backward fading and when would you choose to use alternation in your worked examples?

Further information & resources

  • Atkinson et al: Learning from examples: Instructional principles from the worked examples research. Review of Educational Research, (70,2), 2000.
  • Burns: Using worked examples: From teaching to learning, November 2022:
  • Lovell: Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory in Action, John Catt Educational, 2020.
  • Sweller, Ayres & Klayuga: Cognitive Load Theory (vol 1), Springer, 2011.

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