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Best Practices: A Fading Approach to Worked Examples


Best Practices: A Fading Approach to Worked Exampl …

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Lindsey Collins Sudbury

Guest writer: Lindsey Collins Sudbury
MindEdge Senior Editor
We structure MindEdge courses using a whole-part-whole learning approach, a model that works well for adult learners. Within that broad whole-part-whole framework, we use different instructional techniques. For teaching specific parts, where concrete skills or knowledge is being transferred to the learner, we often turn to the fading approach to worked examples.
Instructional designers should not underestimate the importance of examples. Learners learn by example—oftentimes, whether for reasons of time, personal learning preference, or of lack of confidence with the language, learners actually skip instructional content and head straight for the examples. In fact, teaching through worked examples (example problems that provide concurrent instructions for solving them at each step) has been found to be more effective than opening up a problem for learners to solve on their own, even when given previous instruction (Nievelstein et al. 2010; Van Gog et al. 2006).

Why does it work?

Showing worked examples before turning learners loose to apply instructional content to a problem reduces unnecessary load on working memory and discourages the learner from filling in imagined—but incorrect or incomplete—guesses about how the process works (Cooper et al. 2001; Ginns et al. 2003) or skimming the steps rather than steeping themselves in the details necessary for learning. “Fading out” support for completion of these examples so that examples slowly become exercises or problems for the learner to solve independently is like offering training wheels. When you use the fading approach with worked examples, learners can learn by doing and understand the whole process before being asked to exercise a skill with insufficient help.
Remember to start out with the explanation of the whole concept, and ensure that the details provided in the worked examples aren’t too overwhelming for your learners. Before teaching any skill in detail, learners will usually want an overview that answers some of the main journalist’s questions: what the skill is, why it is necessary, and how—generally—it works. Answering these questions usually provides enough schema to jump into worked examples.

An implementation

We recently completed a project for a university in which we relied heavily on the fading approach to teach the skill of paraphrasing.
Paraphrasing is a skill that we take for granted, but teaching this skill to someone unfamiliar with it threatens overload at every step. To paraphrase properly, the learner must read a paragraph from a research article, look up any unfamiliar words, rephrase the paragraph in his or her own words—being careful not to introduce any personal opinions or biases—, and cite the original source using proper citation conventions.
We chose examples from the four fields of our target learners in this multi-disciplinary course, but even that meant that only a quarter of the example reading passages is likely to be from of a field familiar to each given learner. Therefore, even providing examples of paraphrases in the context of research writing can be tricky because the content of the example itself can easily add mental strain unnecessary to learning a reliable process for paraphrasing.
Our solution was to use a fading approach to worked examples until the point in the lesson where most learners should be comfortable enough with the process to apply it to new content—and then to content that they may submit for grading.
The first worked example uses a judicious amount of clicking to draw attention to important components of a paraphrase. Annotations explain the thinking process for creating the paraphrase example and, in turn, structure the learner’s subsequent self-explanations about the process:
Annotated Example
You’ll notice that the learner is asked to do very little other than click to see how the example provides a model of the skill. As the learner builds a better mental model of the paraphrasing process, worked examples will begin to ask the learner to participate more in the process by identifying which of three sample paraphrases offers a best response to the task of paraphrasing a given passage.
To further fade support for task completion and allow the learner to apply his or her understanding of the concept to new situations, the next set of exercises asks the learner to identify which parts of erroneous paraphrase responses do not meet task requirements and then rewrite the paraphrase, eliminating the errors.
Step 2 asks learners to fix a negative response
Exercises that provide negative responses, or poor models of the completed task, which the learner must correct have been shown to help learners develop self-explanation and self-monitoring skills that become helpful as the learner gains more independence. The use of negative responses has also been shown to lead to longer retention as long as learners have developed the schema to support such explanations (Große and Renkl, 2007). So make sure that your examples offer plenty of annotations and feedback to support learning. We ensure that, as with any worked example, when the activity involves a negative response, the learner is ultimately provided with specific information about what is wrong with the negative response and with a positive model for completion.
Feedback is detailed and offers a correct solution.
Only after a sufficient number of examples and exercises with fading support is the learner asked to take on all of the steps of paraphrasing independently and generate his or her own paraphrase without support to structure the process. Still, however, the suggested response offers a sample solution and discusses any complex patterns of thinking necessary for understanding the paraphrase process used for that example.
After the learner completes as many of these practice examples and exercises as he or she wishes—and is offered enough feedback so that he or she understands how the process may be applied to any content—the final exercise walks the learner through the paraphrase submission task. For this task, which will be submitted for grading, the learner paraphrases a paragraph from an article that he or she is likely to use in his or her research paper. The fading approach has sufficiently modeled the processes necessary for completing this task, and the learner is now applying the process to his or her own work.

A sample worked example/exercise sequence

Item Purpose
Overview: Answers what, why, how Provides motivation for learning; places the skill in context.
Example with annotations Offers more structure than any other example/exercise in the sequence. Helps the learner understand the goal of the tasks without resorting to forming an incorrect or incomplete understanding of the process.
Example of a completed submission task with three different potential paraphrases. Learner is asked to review the possible answers and choose one. Feedback explains which paraphrase best fits task requirements and discusses the proficiencies and deficiencies of each choice. Allows the learner to understand the scope and requirements of the process being taught without having to complete the process himself or herself.
Exercise offers a negative example. Learner is asked to explain where it falls short and correct those aspects. Feedback reinforces the salient aspects of the process. Offers structure without asking the learner to independently complete the task before he or she is ready.
Exercise asks the learner to create a paraphrase independently. Feedback provides the correct answer and discusses the more complicated decisions that were necessary for completing the task. Helps the learner begin to independently apply skills to new situations.
Exercise walks the learner through completing a task for submission Structures completion of the task while letting the learner write independently. This exercise later acts as a reference or job aid to help the learner complete the task when he or she is called upon to paraphrase in the future.


We were faced with teaching a complex process that was bound to cause unnecessary strain to students—several of the steps of the paraphrase process, even when taught alone, are likely to be taxing on working memory. To help learners create a complete and correct model of the process in their minds, we decided to teach by example. We used a fading approach for worked examples: we began by showing complete examples with annotations alongside (which offered the most support), and we faded out to examples and exercises that allowed the learner to complete the paraphrase process more and more independently. Key to our success was careful annotations that helped learners understand what made for a successful paraphrase, followed by exercises and examples that provided extensive feedback alongside and after learner efforts.

Primary resources

Van Gog and Rummel offer a fantastic literature review of research on worked examples:
van Gog, T, & Rummel, N. (2010, May 8). Example-based learning: Integrating cognitive and social-cognitive research perspectives. Educational Psychology Review 22:155–174.

Other helpful resources

Cooper, G., Tindall-Ford, S., Chandler, P., & Sweller, J. (2001). Learning by imagining. Journal of Experimental Psychology. Applied, 7, 68–82.
Ginns, P., Chandler, P., & Sweller, J. (2003). When imagining information is effective. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 28, 229–251.
Große, C. S., & Renkl, A. (2007). Finding and fixing errors in worked examples: Can this foster learning outcomes? Learning and Instruction, 17, 612–634.
Nievelstein, F., Van Gog, T., Van Dijck, G., & Boshuizen, H. P. A. (2010). The worked example and expertise reversal effect in less structured tasks: Learning to reason about legal cases. Manuscript submitted for publication.
Van Gog, T., Paas, F., & Van Merriënboer, J. J. G. (2006). Effects of process-oriented worked examples on troubleshooting transfer performance. Learning and Instruction, 16, 154–164.

Copyright © 2011 Lindsey Collins Sudbury