This is the fourth post of the “Deeper eLearning Design” blog series by Clark Quinn.

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This is the fourth post in a series of six that covers Deeper eLearning. The goal of this series is to build upon good implementations of instructional design, and go deeper into the nuances of what makes learning really work. It is particularly focused on eLearning, but almost all of what is mentioned also applies to face-to-face or virtual instruction. We started with objectives, practice, and continued with concepts. Here we’re talking about the role of examples in learning, and we’ll continue on through emotional elements, and finally putting it all together.

Examples are a part of learning, as we know, and learning design is, or should be considered complex. Our brains are arguably the most complex structure we’ve discovered, and yet we tend to treat learning design as simple. So too with examples, we tend to treat them as easy to write. However, an example that is missing the nuances, the details that make them work, can be as useless as nothing at all. To do examples right, you need to understand what their role is in the learning process, and ensure that you are addressing the subtleties. Or why bother at all.

We’ve talked about how concepts provide a basis for making decisions, and what examples do is provide instances where concepts are applied in contexts, to model appropriate use (or misuse). This immediately raises two elements of a good example: they have contexts and concepts. These can be unpacked.

One of the most important elements in examples is choosing the right set of contexts. What examples do, by using different contexts, is determine the space of transfer. That is, learners will abstract from the contexts seen in examples (and practice) to generalize the learning. The broader the space covered by the examples, the broader is the transfer to practice. To make this clear, let’s use negotiation as a case. You can use negotiation with your boss for a raise, with vendors for contract details, and with sales people in your own purchases. You can even negotiate with your family. If all the examples you see are about negotiating with a vendor, you are less likely to use the learned frameworks in another sort of negotiation. Which may be ok, but you want to be making that choice deliberately. You don’t need all contexts, of course, but a representative sample that spans the space of applicability.

As to the concept, what is important is making the concept clear in the example. That is, the concept should explicitly be used in addressing the issue in the context. So it should be clear how the context is mapped to the concept, how the concept is interpreted to provide guidance on action, how the context responds to the actions, and the consequences and outcomes. The example needs to refer to the concept in the ways the concept was presented, explicitly. In short, the elements of the example should demonstrate the concept in context.

All of this brings up several further issues: how to present an example, and details in the telling. Note that examples are events: problems in a context that someone acts to solve, with outcomes. You should recognize that this is, in essence, a story. And given that our brains are hard wired to understand stories, this makes a natural format for conveying them. You should have an intro setting up the context and issue, a protagonist who takes on solving it, accesses the concept, applies it, and ultimately triumphs. And you should use all the techniques of a good story teller, uncertainty, rising tension/drama, etc. it’ll be more memorable and consequently more useful. Similarly, consider different storytelling media: graphic novels/comics, cartoons, videos, narrated slideshows, etc. Ask your SME for good stories about how situations where the concepts played a role led to great wins or tragic losses.

That said, you don’t want extraneous details to overload the learner. The focus should be on the problem, the concept chosen to solve (maybe even why/how chosen), and how it is applied. Stripping away unnecessary details helps the learner attend to the important elements without getting confused by irrelevant ones. It’s a fine balance, but doable.

It is also important, in showing how the concept plays a role in the story, to show the underlying thinking. What are called, in the literature, as ‘worked examples’ show the interim steps and associated thinking. Make clear what the protagonist thought about the situation, the alternative actions that were considered, why the choice made, and evaluations of the outcomes of those actions. Too often, experts ignore this, as they don’t actually have access to all their thinking (another phenomenon of our cognitive architecture). They tend to say “first you do this, and then you do this” when they should be saying “I could have done this or that, but because of this aspect I did …” Thought bubbles or voice overs are great ways to do this.

For that matter, examples that show doing the wrong thing in the right context, or vice-versa, and how it results in undesirable outcomes, are also valuable. To truly establish the span of transfer, in particular wherenot to transfer, is to show non-examples or examples of what happens when you over extend. Examples outside the space of applicability help determine that space. Examples of misapplication are particularly critical if the consequences of mistakes, of over transfer, are costly as in medicine or transportation.

Another important and valuable thing to show is making mistakes along the way, and backtracking and repairing them. What is happening here is you are showing the ongoing monitoring during the process, and how the concept plays out in different ways. Experts typically make lots of mistakes and repair them, but don’t usually say so. Yet it helps learners in two ways: it helps them internalize the self-monitoring of performance, and it can also keep them from turning off if at first they fail. Seeing that experts can make mistakes too can be a powerful affirmation.

Examples are easy to do simply or even ignore, yet they play a crucial role in supporting learning. Pragmatically, this is a lot of work. As to tradeoffs, I’d err on the side of a few really good examples that cover a fair bit of the space with drama and the proper annotation than more and weaker ones. That isn’t necessarily cognitively grounded so much as focusing on learner experience, but I think that with the constraints above, a few really compelling examples that are comprehensible and memorable will serve learners better. And I’m willing to be wrong about that.

Summing up, good examples:

  • Cover a broad, representative set of contexts (to enable easy transfer to the real-world)
  • Clearly explain the concept, and the underlying thinking behind the concept
  • Show mistakes made, and how they are corrected
  • Are presented through a well-told story (to make them memorable and useful)


Here are links to all six parts of the “Deeper eLearning Design” series:

1. Deeper eLearning Design: Part 1 – The Starting Point: Good Objectives
2. Deeper eLearning Design: Part 2 – Practice Makes Perfect
3. Deeper eLearning Design: Part 3 – Concepts
4. Deeper eLearning Design: Part 4 – Examples
5. Deeper eLearning Design: Part 5 – Emotion
6. Deeper eLearning Design: Part 6 – Putting It All Together


Written by Clark Quinn


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