John Sweller Interview 1: Worked Examples – What’s the role of students recording their thinking

This is part of a series of blogs detailing a discussion that I had with John Sweller in mid 2017. See all parts of this series on this page

OL: Let’s start off by considering that original experiment of yours, back in 1982, in which you required students to move from a source to a target number using only the operations: multiply by three or subtract 29. I want to do a little thought experiment based upon the original experiment. So, if we took that experiment and we ran that in tandem with another, which is exactly the same, except in the second condition, you ask the problem solvers, the undergraduate students, a different question. Instead of saying: ‘Try to get to this number from this number using these operation in whatever order’, you say: ‘Try to do that. But also, record every step clearly, show what you’ve done and after you solve every problem, I want you to look back and try to find some generalisation or some principle.’ What do you think would be the outcome of this experiment?

JS: That’s exactly how one learns when problem solving. In other words, you don’t learn a lot by problem solving, you’ll learn a lot more by looking back at your solution because at that point, it’s essentially a worked example.  You’ve created a worked example, and it occurred to me at the time of those original experiments that instead of having people look back at their own solution, why not just give them a solution? It’s easier, it’s quicker. That’s how we started working on the worked example effect, for precisely that reason so that’s a useful insight. It would work better, yeah.

OL: Let’s consider the political environment of education at the time that you were trying to introduce this information on the worked example effect. It was heavily in favour of problem solving. So, against that backdrop. I was wondering… If you had tweaked it and had, say, presented the worked example effect in a way that I just presented it just then (with students doing the problem solving themselves, then reflecting upon their own solutions), do you think that would have influenced the way that people reacted to it?

JS: Look, I’d be pessimistic about that. I’d be pessimistic because the entire research environment in those days was absolutely committed to problem solving. That you’d learn through problem solving. You can look at the problem later but it doesn’t really matter because there are two things you learn through problem solving, so the story went —the first thing you’ll learn is, you’ll learn how to solve problems in general. But the second thing you’ll learn is you’ll learn the content better. So you have that two path advantage. You’ll learn how to solve problems and you’ll learn content better. Now neither of those paths is true. The data show that quite clearly. But notwithstanding that, that’s what people assumed and based on that assumption, they were not going to change their minds.

OL: Okay. But if people are hell-bent on getting students to solve problems, then getting them to accurately record what they’re thinking at the time and then to reflect on it, is better than just getting people to solve problems?

JS: Oh yeah! No question about that. It’s a better way of doing it and indeed getting people to reflect and think about the solution is beneficial in a whole variety of points of view. So that would be useful.

OL: Cool. It’s interesting because I haven’t seen it in much of your work. Perhaps I have missed it- much of an emphasis on recording one’s own thinking and using a kind of external means of recording as a way for individuals to reduce their cognitive load.

JS: That is correct because my aim has always been: Let’s get teachers to do it properly in the first place. There’s an assumption that when somebody looks at a worked example and studies a worked  example, what you just said is precisely what they’re doing. It’s just that they didn’t provide the worked example themselves. When we ask an individual to ‘study the worked example’, which is the instruction that people were always given in a worked example experiment. My assumption has always been: That’s what they’re doing, they’re thinking about the worked example. They’re studying it. They’re trying to work out why it works this way and they’re doing it in the sense that it’s provided to them so they’re not wasting their time going into useless dead ends.

OL: Yeah and it’s just more time efficient. That makes a lot of sense.

Next post:

2. Can we teach problem solving?

All posts in this series:

  1. Worked Examples – What’s the role of students recording their thinking?
  2. Can we teach problem solving?
  3. What’s the difference between the goal-free effect and minimally guided instruction?
  4. Biologically primary and biologically secondary knowledge
  5. Motivation, what’s CLT got to do with it?
  6. Productive Failure – Kapur (What does Sweller think about it?)
  7. How do we measure cognitive load?
  8. Can we teach collaboration?
  9. CLT – misconceptions and future directions