The art of being a subject matter expert on a project that uses worked examples

by Robin Petterd

Sprout Labs is embarking on building a new program that is based around an instructional design approach called worked example. This blog is partly for the subject matter experts (SMEs) that are working that project but I thought other people might find it useful as well.

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A worked example is a step-by-step demonstration of how to perform a task or solve a problem. Worked examples are used extensively in the teaching of mathematics and are eminently suited to training in highly-technical areas as well as in teaching and learning for the high-level skills that professionals require. Jeroen J. G. van Merriënboer and Paul A. Kirschner talk extensively about worked examples in their book Ten Steps to Complex Learning. The worked example method is similar to the case study approach. The difference is that worked examples focus on the thinking and decision-making processes that an expert needs to apply. In other blog posts I hope to go into more details about what they are and how the can be used.

Often in the highly complex technical areas that Sprout Labs works, the traditional approach has been to show the model or talk about the legalisations first. Just like in a university program, it’s about “teaching” an abstract model that can be applied later. Where this approach falls down is when the learner needs to make complex decisions that require a great level of tacit knowledge. What worked examples do is focus on the practise of applying the models 1st. At a later date the abstract model can be shown or even better have the learner mindmap, draw or write up the model that they saw in action.

In past projects we have found that preparing the content for worked examples is now often not easier for subject matter experts. As an expert you need to slow down your decision making and think about the decisions that have often become automatic to you. Often you have become more used to talking about the models or legalisation that you are required to apply than talking about how you apply those models and legislation.

A great way to think about how to prepare the content for a worked example is “telling the story about how you do a task”..Some statements that might help you are

  • The 1st thing I do is ..
  • At this stage I'm thinking about ..
  • With this stage I need to watch out for ...
  • Here I need to apply ...
  • Here I need to think about ...
  • This bit is easy because ...
  • One of the more difficult bits is ..
  • You might need to need to think about ...
  • Here I apply ...
  • When I see something I like ... I need to think about .... and check ...

Later you might remove the “I” statements, but to start with they are great way to move away from abstract thinking and to start to thinking about “telling the story of process”

In later posts I’ve given some examples of how we have used worked examples in healthcare learning and legal training.

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