Cognitive Load, Worked Examples, and Multimedia (oh my!)
Back before the Multimedia Handbook was born, John Sweller was writing up a storm to explain how worked examples work. At the time that they were writing, the most prevalent pedagogy for math and science was “drill and kill.” Okay, maybe there’s a more neutral term for it, but in essence, students received a mountain of math problems, and were believed to learn by slogging through. Sweller and some of his buddies suggested that studying the steps an expert takes to solve a couple of problems would be a more efficient and more effective way to learn whatever skills were to be learned. Sometimes, those worked examples were computerized, and other times they were printed on paper (as in the case of reverse-fading of handouts).
Fast forward about twenty years, and welcome multimedia learning to the arena. If you take a gander at Renkl’s chapter in the Gospel According to Mayer, you’ll quickly come to learn that effective multimedia worked examples are also targeted at novice learners in the initial phases of “skill acquisition.” Of course, they support learners in adopting a schema for solving usually linear problems with a concrete sequence of solution steps. Multimedia worked examples, when done right, follow each of the “classic multimedia design principles” as well as traditional best practices in teaching and learning. An excellent multimedia worked example will elicit self-explanation from the student, which is another strategy for freeing up the working memory to focus on the important stuff, like building schema.
Did you notice that whole part about solving linear, well defined problems? Not surprisingly, worked examples have most successfully been studied in math and science.
Wait! You’re an English Teacher!
After reading a chapter chock full of images depicting vectors, probability charts, slope intercept problems, and geometric shapes, it may seem odd for me to conclude that worked examples just might work for reading comprehension instruction! But I actually think I’m onto something here.
Let’s start with the problem. There’s a transition from elementary and middle school to high school when it comes to “what’s expected” of readers. We move from wanting students to identify key plot elements and identify basic fiction structures to wanting them to read for the subtext -- looking at how literary devices like imagery, motifs, symbols, and archetypes lead to some deeper thematic or political meaning in the text. For some students at the Sophomore level, this just makes sense. Of course there would be some deeper meaning in a novel! But, for other students, this practice is just so hard. Some of this, I think, has to do with cognitive development and moving from being a concrete to an abstract thinker. So modeling what the process looks like (ie: modeling self-explanation) could be really helpful.
My focus: I’m looking at struggling readers, but more importantly, those readers within the context of a whole class that is of mixed ability. I want to know if a worked example of what an effective reader does would be an effective way to remediate instruction for struggling readers beyond what they would get from instruction in a traditional classroom, (where readers go home at night to figure out the reading on their own, then come back to class to repair meaning and get some clarity).
A Monkey Wrench!
It all sounds so good, right?: see if we can apply worked example research to a technology-rich English Language Arts classroom, and hope that multimedia worked examples of analytical reading will somehow trigger self-explanation and increased comprehension. But what about that pesky “expertise reversal effect”? The monkey wrench comes from an article by Sweller and Renkle’s contemporaries, Plass, Kalyuga, & Leutner (2007). They write that:
expertise may actually trigger additional cognitive load because experts have to process information that, given their high level of expertise in the given domain, is unnecessary for them to assure successful learning. The expertise reversal effect occurs when an instructional method that is effective for novices becomes ineffective for more knowledgeable learners.