Principle to Practice 2: The Worked Example Effect, Generation Effect and Element Interactivity


My second principle to practice blog post focuses on a paper by Chen, Kalyuga and Sweller

The Worked Example Effect, the Generation Effect, and Element Interactivity

What was the paper about?

Research exploring the worked example effect has demonstrated that model examples which provide full guidance on how to solve a problem more often results in better test performance compared to providing no guidance during problem-solving. Before we go on, it is important for us to define (in lay terms) some of the key terms used in this paper:

  • Worked examples are model step-by-step processes that provide full guidance to learners on how to solve a problem.
  • The generational effect is the requirement for learners to be actively involved in the generation of their own understanding of material with little guidance from a teacher (e.g. a problem solving task).
  • Element interactivity focuses on the complexity of new learning material in relation to prior knowledge and the external environment. For example, if given the problem x-3 = 5, novice learners may need to handle (x, -, 3, =, 5) as separate components in working memory – this has a high element interactivity. Whereas more expert learners are more likely to know the process of calculating this type of equation (add 3 both sides and why), thus a low element interactivity (example adapted from the article).

The authors use cognitive load theory as a lens for their research. They assert that information is stored in the form of schemas in long-term memory and that working memory has limited capacity but draws heavily on long-term memory to ease the working memory burden. When presented with novel and complex problems to solve (high element interactivity), if there is insufficient prior knowledge in long-term memory, the working memory can easily become overwhelmed and so it relies on something called the ‘borrowing principle’ e.g. expert instructions and/or worked examples to ease the burden. In contrast, when the problem can be solved by utilising long-term memory resources (low element interactivity), the borrowing principle becomes redundant.


What was the aim of the paper?

The authors sought to explore the benefit of worked examples with increasing expertise. They suggest that the advantage of worked examples may decrease or even reverse to a disadvantage because with increasing expertise, studying worked examples becomes a redundant activity. Furthermore, increases in expertise should have the same effect as decreases in element interactivity.


What did they do?

This research involved two experiments:

Experiment 1 investigated the relationship between levels of guidance and levels of element interactivity using 33 Year 4 primary school learners studying geometry topics that were either high or low in element interactivity for these students. High-element interactivity materials were used to test for the worked example effect by comparing studying worked examples (high guidance) with problem solving (low guidance). Low-element interactivity materials were used to test for the generation effect by presenting learners with answers to memory questions (high guidance) or having them generate answers themselves (low guidance).

It was hypothesized that high guidance (worked examples) would be superior to low guidance (generated problem solving) using materials high in element interactivity, whereas low guidance was predicted to be superior to high guidance with materials low in element interactivity. The results of Experiment 1 confirmed this hypothesis.


Experiment 2 also tested for an interaction between guidance and element interactivity with older, more expert learners using similar materials to those of Experiment 1. It was hypothesized that the interaction should be reduced or eliminated using students who had a reduced requirement for worked examples (high guidance). 36 Year 7 students were randomly assigned to groups using the procedure of Experiment 1. All students had previously studied the area and perimeter formulae used in this study to test for the generation effect. Similarly, all students had been taught to solve the problems used to test for the worked example effect approximately a year previously. Therefore, Year 7 students were regarded as relative experts with respect to the formulae as well as the problems used in Experiment 2.

Results of this experiment supported the hypothesis that the worked example effect reversed with increases in expertise. Increased guidance had a similar negative effect on both higher and lower element interactivity material. In other words, in contrast to Experiment 1, the generation effect was better for both lower and higher element interactivity material.


What is the key principle of the paper?

Low guidance during instruction (the generation effect) is more effective for knowledgeable learners with expertise. High guidance (the worked example effect) is more effective for novice learners.


What does this look like in practice?

Novices need more guidance and are more likely to benefit from worked examples to chunk new learning, thus supporting their understanding. The example below shows what a typical ‘non-worked example’ task sheet is like, compared to a ‘worked example’, with notes:


Click image to view larger

*This is a simple example in maths. Worked examples can be used across a range of subjects and a quick Google will reveal them in subjects such as English, PE and Geography to name a few.


To conclude, when you initially assess learner knowledge, where they are relatively novice, consider how you will support them to more effectively learn new content by using worked/model examples. If dealing with relative experts, consider using more problem based tasks (more to follow on this).


Once again, if I have misunderstood anything, feel free to let me know. If you have any examples you’d like to share, please leave them in the comments below.





Why I do PowerPoint

There’s been a bit of a hoo-hah on Twitter today about PowerPoint (PPt). I think it began following this post from Jo Facer, which makes some fair comments. This led to a share of a previously written, more balanced argument by Robert Peal. I certainly agree with points in both, but not all. Here’s why I think we shouldn’t be so hasty in dismissing the use PPt:


1. It provides a structure for lessons – note the term lessons. I often have a PPt that spans more than one lesson and based on the content that needs to be taught. I don’t see a problem with planning via PPt, so as long as the time spent is on thinking about the order/structure of content. Taking the time to think about the structure helps to organise my thoughts and enables me to move information around to suit the needs of the class. It’s as if I am putting my schema to paper (figuratively speaking). I could use other means to do this, but the PPt serves as a prompt during the session and means that the risk of learners missing out on crucial information is minimised.

2. The ‘visual’ argument – there’s no denying the vast body of research supporting Paivio’s Dual Coding Theory. I used to be guilty of putting reams of text on slides, which I proceeded to read to my learners and wondered why they never remembered anything. The issue was that whilst I read aloud and learners read the text (self talking), all information was entering working memory via the verbal pathway. Having developed a (basic) understanding of the theory, I began to change my approach, ensuring that more visuals were used to support explanations rather than text. Where visual information can’t be used, I keep text to a minimum, emphasising key points only. Having the visual means that the two pathways to working memory are being used, thus less of of burden for the learners (as shown below). PPt is a platform that enables me to quickly create or add visuals, meaning that all I have to concentrate on is explaining it clearly.


3. Animations – I’m not talking the swirling and whirling of individual letters which take ages to create sentences. No, I’m talking animations to grab learners attention, to direct them to important components of visuals as they are being discussed. I have blogged about this here, but the Clark and Lyons research is a much more comprehensive read on this. Whilst there are many other ways to direct attention, PPt can be used really effectively to do so.

4. Everything in one place – Another benefit of PPt is that I can place my quiz, my content, links to reading, learner task instructions etc all in one single place. I can upload this to the Virtual Learning Environment and if learners wish to access anything, it’s all there for them. The fact that everything is in one place also helps keep my OCD in check.

5. Aesthetics – I must admit, I am guilty of putting too much time into the aesthetics of my PPts. I have got better at making the information less of a burden on the working memory; gone are the GIFs, the tenuously linked images, and text heavy slides. In spite of this, I still like to have clear, crisp, well designed slides. The fact that I put effort into making my resources look nice probably won’t get me any thanks from anyone, but with the care I place, I know that the spellings will be correct, the animations will support the learners at the right time and (I’m going to throw this out there) it’ll probably engage the learners a little more (by engage, I mean grab their attention). Whilst this probably makes no odds to the learning, it’s far better than my handwriting on a white board.

To summarise, bad PPts are bad. Similarly, bad teachers are bad; as are bad pens, bad textbooks and bad technology. There is another way and I strive to be at the opposite end of the continuum.

Questioning questioning 

Since Geoff Petty shared his ‘which questioning‘ strategy with me around 6 years ago, I have been on a mission to hone my questioning. It is a great little activity that really gets you thinking about making effective use of questions. To this day, I use an adapted version of the activity with my own trainees. Indeed, I often focus observation feedback on the development of questioning as an essential formative assessment approach.


It’s easy to see why this is the focus of many teachers up and down the country. Hattie’s synthesis of classroom experiments (2015) found questioning to have a modest, but positive effect size of 0.48 and the resulting classroom discussion a huge 0.82.

The thing is, I’ve found more and more that trainees are focusing too much on questioning individuals (they do it well), and less time on the instructing or allowing learners to practise. It seems that ‘the question’ has taken precedent over ‘the answer’.

I observed a session recently where the teacher insisted on working their way around the class with questions, yet many of the learners didn’t have sufficient prior knowledge to allow them to explore understanding through discussions. It appeared that the opportunity cost of such a strategy was not as fruitful as one might have thought. Due to questioning being a strategy held in high regard, I can understand why they persisted, but it just didn’t help the learners. Instead, the group lost interest rather quickly and low level disruption ensued.

Were the teacher to use questioning more efficiently (second time I’ve used this term in as many posts), through a selection of multiple choice questions which can be answered by all in a short time, the teacher may have realised that the learners required some input/guidance to increase knowledge and enable greater participation in discussions.

Arguably a good starting point for thinking about questioning in the classroom is to ask yourself what the purpose is. Is it to assess learner knowledge/understanding, or is it to teach learners something through discussion? Perhaps it is both, but the main reason should influence the type of questions used. Personally, I use questioning as an assessment tool and the quicker I am able to assess ALL learners the better, so that I can identify gaps in knowledge that need filling. I’m not dismissing questioning as a means to generate good class discussion, but appreciate that time is of the essence with our learners and we should aim to maximise every last drop of it.

ResearchEdFE – Oliver and me

Last week (03.12.16), Oliver and I delivered our ‘Choose Science, Not Myths’ presentation at the first ResearchEd devoted to Further Education.

Below are the slides from the presentation and Oliver kindly put together the presentation notes in his blog here and here.

The first part of the presentation explored a range of myths and while it is acknowledged that the jury is still out on some of these, it is important to remember that we were attempting to be contentious in order to spark debate. The second part of the presentation explored a range of effective learning strategies which are supported by both classroom experiments and cognitive science.

10 tips to maximise learning support

This is the first of what I hope will be many guest posts on my blog. It is written by my good friend and experienced Learning Support Assistant (LSA), Paul Warren.


Rarely do teachers have the opportunity to explore how to work effectively with LSAs (or equivalents) in their classrooms. Both ITE and ongoing staff development sessions often fail to emphasise the importance of, and methods to enhance, the working relationship between teacher and LSA, resulting in ineffective utilisation of this key role (not in all cases, but many).  In this post, Paul highlights the pivotal role that LSAs play and he provides teachers with 10 great tips to maximise their use:

Image source:
‘At some point during their career, many FE lecturers will have an opportunity to work alongside a Learning Support Assistant (LSA). Usually, but not exclusively, LSAs are tasked with providing 1:1 or small group support to students with learning difficulties and/or disabilities by offering learning strategies which help them to access the curriculum. Above all, however, the ultimate aim of most LSAs is to promote independent and autonomous working for the students that they support.


The most effective LSAs are those which seek to work closely with the lecturer and the student to gradually reduce the need for support with a view to ultimately removing it altogether. This can create a range of possible issues – not least of which being that the LSA should expect to make themselves redundant – but the overall impetus is on helping the learner to maximise their potential to work independently.


Of course, some learners will require support for the entirety of their time at college, but there is no harm in working with the expectation that all students will be able to work more independently before their course of study ends.


Often lecturers may not have had any in-depth instruction or training regarding how best to work with LSAs. Finding information isn’t always easy. FE-specific literature or research relating to working with LSAs is scarce, but there are some schools-based studies (see the excellent Deployment and Impact of Support Staff (DISS) Project) or smaller scale FE research (see LSIS/Natspec’s highly valuable Enhancement of Learning Support) which may prove helpful. Excellence Gateway have also produced a really useful guide which can be used to gauge the impact of support staff via their Working With LSAs Audit Tool. In addition, a search on the Education and Training Foundation’s website will yield a range of resources for working with students with SEND who need support. Other additional useful and relevant sources include The 2010 Equality Act, the 2014 Children and Families Act – including Education, Health and Care Plans and The FELTAG report which, in part, highlighted the importance of providing assistive technology for FE students who need it. More current FE-specific research and general awareness is needed, however, which promotes the benefits and value of using LSAs to promote independent and autonomous working in Further Education.


In the meantime, the following suggestions may be useful to lecturers to help kick-start a collaboration with LSAs with a view to reducing support and increasing learner independence:

  1. Work with LSAs to review current records of student needs – particularly pinpointing any known learning strategies which encourage the learner to work independently.
  2. Cultivate high expectations of the learner by immediately working with LSAs to try to identify what independence from support might ultimately look like. Use what you find in conjunction with your identification of student needs as a guide for each session and review regularly.
  3. Agree an absolute maximum level of support that LSAs can provide before an issue or difficulty must be referred directly to the class tutor. Be clear with LSAs (and the learner) that the LSA should never do the work for the student.
  4. Identify an early target for the learner to interact directly with the lecturer at least once during every session. Increase over time in order to reduce reliance on LSAs and gradually prepare the student for the time when the support is withdrawn.
  5. Produce a measurable method of identifying the impact of support. This could be a chart or record of work that records instances in which the student does a task independently or requires minimal LSA input. If possible, actively involve the student in evaluating their own need for help and use the data to plan future support.
  6. Encourage, praise and reward students when they work independently and use successes to promote future independent learning
  7. Work with the LSA and the student to produce a portfolio of independent working strategies which the learner can take with them to further study or employment.
  8. Liaise with teacher trainers, quality managers and senior leaders to share successes of promoting learner independence and reducing LSA support.
  9. Work with your Learning Support team to build a database of what works for learners in your subject and use it to inform future individual student support needs.
  10. Share ideas and successes via social media platform such as Blogs, Twitter or YouTube (remembering to respect individual student confidentiality and identity) and get in touch with other colleges to find out how they reduce support and promote learner independence.’


So there we have it. Why not consider how you can develop each of the above points. Thanks go to Paul Warren @paulw_learn for this excellent post.

Why use visuals?

Along with the other half a dozen books I am working my way through, I am coming to the end of Ruth Clarke and Chopete Lyons’ book on Graphics for Learning. My fascination for this sort of thing is borne out of admiration for my good friend, Oliver Caviglioli’s work (if you haven’t seen this, you’re missing out). For information, in this post I will be using graphics and visuals synonymously.
In their book, Clarke and Lyons spend a chapter (4) exploring how learning happens and how graphics can be effective in supporting this. Here is a graphic they use to show human cognitive architecture which aligns with Baddeley and Hitch’s Working Memory Model.


They note that because of the importance of long term memory, those with little domain knowledge (novices) suffer when information is not presented effectively to them, as their working memory (WM) becomes overloaded. Using visuals with auditory information during instruction can work to reduce this burden on WM however, as two pathways into WM are distinctly separate – one visual and one auditory.

Essentially, the working memory is like a bottle neck. If we pour too much into the bottle neck, much is lost… now imagine having two bottle necks into the same bottle, we’d keep much more information (yes a very simplistic way of looking at it). Better still, imagine if the same information went in both visually and auditory… this is what Paivio calls dual coding – a really useful approach to providing new information to learners.

Dual coding in action?
Using graphics benefits learners in numerable ways, not just the above. Here I will discuss some of the reasons outlined by Clarke and Lyons:

1. Graphics help to direct attention

They suggest that almost any ‘visual will attract attention’. Attention is key to learning anything new, but in a typical classroom, in addition to the information being taught, there are other stimuli which can distract learners. Having a visual for learners can provide the focus of attention, however, they should be used with caution:

  • The visual should not be irrelevant to what information is being shared (random clip art images should be avoided).
  • The visual, if complex, should also have signals to direct attention to component parts such as small circles or arrows.
  • Simple visuals are better for more novice learners.


2. Graphics help to activate prior knowledge

Learners ‘know stuff’ already, but it will be in the abyss of long term memory and it is important for us to draw it (no pun intended) into the working memory in order to link new knowledge. Clarke and Lyons tell us that ‘a visual provided before the main lesson content can help to build an effective base knowledge structure. This skeleton structure provides a frame on which the learner can attach additional lesson details.’ This is corroborated by Marzano’s work on classroom based instruction, whereby non-linguistic teaching methods such as graphic organisers have a startling effect on achievement (0.75 Ave. ES)

In spite of this, a graphic that activates inappropriate prior knowledge will depress learning according to Clarke and Lyons, so there is a need to ensure clarity and order with the graphic that is used.


3. Graphics help to manage mental load

‘Since working memory is the site of active processing, good instructional materials must preserve its limited capacity for learning.’ I have blogged before about the use of storyboards to assist with delivery of new information. This is one example of how to manage the mental load. Simple visuals (line drawings) are said to be better than more complex visuals. For instance, when drawing the heart, for novice learners it would help to draw a simple boxed line drawing as opposed to a cross section of the heart, which is often seen. As learners become more competent with the content, visuals can increase in complexity.


4. Graphics help to build mental models

Where Clarke and Lyons refer to mental models, they basically mean ‘schema’, or patterns of knowledge and skills in the long term memory. The more expert one becomes, the more complex and organised our mental models become. We learn by linking new information to existing mental models and in using graphics, abstract information can be made more clear with how new information links to current knowledge.


5. Graphics help with transfer

Clarke and Lyons argue that with all the knowledge in the world, unless we can retrieve it and bring it back to WM, we won’t be able to transfer it to alternative situations. They distinguish between near and far-transfer in their book, both requiring different types of graphic to maximise the type of transfer.

Near-transfer is the type of thing we will do more frequently, like a following a process for sending an email – the difference being that there will be different content to include.


Far-transfer requires the use of concrete and abstract examples – Clarke and Lyons inform us that in developing far-transfer, ‘graphic illustrations that build mental models, use varied context, transition from concrete to abstract, and provide a work context for immersive learning environments’. I feel that this warrants an entirely separate blog post, so will look at this further in the new year.


6. Graphics can optimise motivation

Clarke and Lyons highlight motivation as the key to effective learning and that visuals can play a huge role in motivating learners. They recommend using visuals that help learners see the relevance and value in the learning and trigger interest for learners. It is important to note that while visuals can interest learners in the learning material, the ‘edutainment’ that often comes with instruction can actually impede learning (guilty of this your honour). So try to avoid eye candy and instead focus on relevant graphics.

In addition to this, a recent post by Greg Ashman caught my eye, arguing that by reducing cognitive load, we increase the motivation of our learners. If we look back at the purpose of using the visual pathway to WM – to reduce load, then we find additional benefits to using graphics.


So that’s it, six reasons why we should consider using more visuals in our instruction. If you do use them though, please heed the advice of Clarke and Lyons.


Own your room

Not all teachers have the luxury of their own classroom; many have to move from room to room for their lessons, but regardless, one of the biggest pieces of advice that I give to teachers when managing classroom behaviour is to OWN YOUR ROOM.

When I started out teaching, I would often arrive at my classroom 2 minutes before the lesson to find students already in the room, sometimes eating/drinking, on phones, generally treating the place as a common room, rather than place of learning. This put me on the back foot as a teacher. I couldn’t arrange the tables as I saw fit, so would try to involve the learners in moving the room around (mayhem). Then trying to get them to sit where I needed them became even more of an issue. I had to start negatively by enforcing rules that learners should have been following; “put your drink in your bag”, “put your phones away”, so getting learners focussed on the lesson became difficult. Basically, I was taking part in unnecessary battles, when I should have been inspiring learners to learn about my subject. So after a terrible first year, here’s what I started to do – I owned my room. Below I have put some simple strategies that can help you to do the same:

  1. Where possible, arrive at your room before your learners and if they are in the room before you for whatever reason, ask them to leave whilst you set up. Do not work around them in your classroom – even if it means delaying the lesson start by a few minutes until you are ready.
  2. Where possible, set the room layout differently to last time (or try to vary at least a little with a different seating plan). Learners get comfortable very quickly and as soon as they take control of a seat, it’s very difficult for a teacher to gain your classroom control back. In addition to this, research by Smith (1985) has demonstrated the benefits of multiple learning environments on memory. Whilst not a completely different environment, the variation in position in the room, may result in less environmental cues used for memory.
  3. Welcome every student at the door. This not only sets a positive tone for the session, but it also allows you to prevent any misdemeanours prior to them entering your classroom. At this point, you can also start to direct them to where you want them to sit. “Morning Kye, please sit there” (Note: I have not asked Kye if he would mind sitting there, but have told him politely).
  4. In most instances, I’d suggest that you begin the class swiftly with an overview of the expectations for the session. That way, there will be no surprises along the way. “Here is what we are doing today and this is what I expect from you”. Further to this, according to Marzano (2003, cited in Petty), the use of ‘reminders’ has a 0.64 effect-size on achievement and is a useful strategy for developing student-teacher relationships in the classroom. This sense of clarity with expectations for learning is supported further by the work of Wiliam on formative assessment. Thus starting most sessions in this way is desirable.
  5. Recap prior learning so that students can draw upon what they already know about the topic. Supported by a wealth of cognitive psychology research, low stakes testing offers a multitude of benefits. Not only does it allow for initial assessment to take place (if done properly*), but it also allows for learners to take part in retrieval practice. This is a low-cost, high impact strategy to support learner acquisition of knowledge, which can be built upon as the lesson progresses. In terms of behaviour, this will provide a routine for learners and even the most challenging like routine.
  6. Try to avoid large group work. When it comes to group work, then anything more than groups of 3 and I start to worry about the benefit to all involved. Slavin, Hurley and Chamberlain offer two key features of effective group work (working towards the same goal and having accountability for one another’s learning), but even so, it becomes very difficult for a teacher to manage large groups. I tend to stick to paired activities in the main, but that’s my preference. If you can be confident that all members are participating fully and are getting the most from their experience in the group (and I’m not talking ‘soft skill’ nonsense), then fine, but larger group size does create the conditions for behaviour to go awry. My ‘go-to’ strategy is think, pair, share. A great post on the strategy by HeadGuruTeacher can be found here and in using it well, the teacher maintains their control, thus their ownership of the room.


There are many more ways of owning your classroom, but I generally offer the above 6 tips for my trainees to enable them to then make decisions based upon their own contexts. I haven’t discussed classroom rules, rewards or punishments, because there’s a whole blog post in that, but these are just simple strategies that can be adopted with relative ease. If you find learner behaviour a struggle, then perhaps try owning your classroom.


* For effective initial assessment, consider using multiple choice questions, along with a whole group answer approach, whereby mini-white boards, individual hand held devices, or simply fingers up, is used to determine each learner’s starting point. Do not resort to the ‘asking an open question and only the most confident shout out’ approach.

Less is more…

I’ve been writing a lot about cognitive architecture and instructional design of late (here, here and here). Arguably, the goal of instruction is to help students be able to explain information that they’ve retained and to transfer this to solve problems. Here I want to discuss a method of instructional design which may be highly effective in supporting learners with not only their retention of information, but also transfer.


According to Mayer et al (1996):

‘a common instructional practice is to provide a lengthy verbal explanation, such as a textbook passage or a classroom lecture…[in doing this]… instructors may believe…[that this]… fulfills their responsibility to provide information to the learner…[however]… this practice is not very efficient for many students.’

In their work, Mayer and colleagues conducted three experiments with a group of college students to explore the effectiveness of different instructional approaches to share a scientific explanations:

Experiment 1: Students read a summary that contained a sequence of short captions with simple illustrations depicting the main steps in the process of lightning. Students recalled these steps and solved transfer problems as well as or better than students who received the full text along with the summary or the full text alone.

Experiment 2: Taking away the illustrations or the captions from the summary reduced its effectiveness.

Experiment 3: Adding additional text to the summary reduced its effectiveness.

From the results of the experiments, it was concluded that multimedia learning that is concise, coherent, and coordinated, aids explanation recall and problem solving transfer. It is suggested that the reason for this is simply because summaries reduce the load on the cognitive system, enabling learners to carry out the cognitive processes necessary for meaningful learning, similar to that of dual coding.


In layman’s terms, an effective method of instruction is to provide learners with a storyboard of a process that contains both visual and text information, being mindful of the three ‘C’s:

  1. Conciseness: only using a few images and sentences in the storyboard.
  2. Coherence: Images and sentences should be presented in a cause-and-effect sequence
  3. Coordination: Images should be presented next to its corresponding sentences


So, I asked a colleague of mine, Mike Tyler to trial this approach and see how he found  and here’s the result…

Of course, it’s easy for me to sit here and say that sound instructional design should look a certain way, but there are implications in doing this. We know the opportunity of using resources like the above is good, but at what cost? I asked Mike a few questions following his work to untangle this a little.

1. How long did it take you to produce? 
Mike’s response: ‘It took a couple of hours… I used PowerPoint to make the pictures then grouped them, saved each one as a png and imported each into Word. Finally I saved it all as a pdf. Basically, it was a full-on mission, as they say! I’d do it by hand next time and scan / upload.’
2. In producing it, how did you know what to put where and what information to omit/include?
Mike’s response: ‘I included only what was minimally necessary to make sense of the process. i.e. osteobalsts, osteoclasts, etc). I had able Level 3 learners in mind.’
3. Do you think you will use this when teaching the process in future? Why?
Mike’s response: ‘I will probably give this a go in the future. I might try it for Anatomy & Physiology this coming term, maybe in a lesson on the energy systems.’
I’m going to be following up with Mike once he’s used this with his learners and will keep you posted by updating this post, but in the meantime, why not have a go yourself?
With thanks to Mike Tyler for this collaboration.

Experts and novices


This week I stumbled across a fantastic article online written by a self-taught card counter (Steve Pavlina) who, when reflecting on the Blackjack table was able to draw upon some lessons for life. I read this article and it immediately resonated from an educational perspective too.

Steve begins the article by outlining his fascination with the game and went on to outline how he became an expert at beating the casino:

‘I bought a book on blackjack, learned the rules of the game, memorized the basic strategy, and then studied a simple +/- card counting system. It took a heck of a lot of practice and was tedious to learn, but I eventually felt comfortable with it…Between Vegas trips I studied blackjack and card counting ever more deeply. I read 10-12 books on the subject and mastered different counting systems (Thorpe, Uston, Revere, etc.). I practised advanced counting systems that keep a side-count of aces. I drilled myself until I could count down a deck of cards in under 14 seconds. I learned to vary the play of hands according to the count, memorized optimal strategies for different rule sets, and learned the subtleties of the game that would increase my edge even the slightest degree. We’re talking a total edge of maybe 1%.’

Steve made some observations whilst playing. Below I have attempted to make sense of these through an education lens.

1. Novices will make correct decisions most of the time – It was observed that most of the time (80-90%), novices would make the same decisions as an expert, but cumulatively that 10-20% they make incorrect decisions have a big impact on their losses.


In education, we may assume that learners are learning well if, in most cases, they answer questions correctly, or produce a lot of work. Aside from these being generally poor proxies for learning (Coe, 2014), learners themselves may also believe that they’re doing well; mistaking their ability as superior to what it is (the Dunning-Kruger effect). This is dangerous because it’s the bits they may be getting wrong that cumulatively have a considerable impact on future learning (the 10-20%). Taking even the smallest misconception forward could make future learning less clear and more difficult.

Illustration by Oliver Caviglioli

For example, upon taking students into my Biology class, I have found many to arrive with the belief that all arteries carry oxygenated blood. Whilst in the vast majority of instances this is correct, it is a misconception that could cause confusion when later learning about pulmonary circulation, where in fact the pulmonary artery carries deoxygenated blood. The misconception should be corrected to ‘arteries carry blood away from the heart’, thus removing the confusion about oxygenated/deoxygenated blood. So what I’m getting at here is that we as teachers are supporting our learners’ development from novices to experts by not making assumptions about learning (as a result of insufficient assessment) and not allowing misconceptions to leave our classrooms.


2. Novices miss golden opportunities – It was observed that novices lost more money on the blackjack table due to a lack of understanding about when to gamble more and when to go bust; instead they tended to play it safe. Experts on the other hand would go bust more often and gamble high when the time was right. They used their knowledge of the odds to their advantage.


Daley found in her research of novice and expert learning that novices are ‘scared to death [and] terrified of making mistakes’, and that they want to be told what it is they needed to know in their learning. They are risk averse and as such don’t like to put themselves in positions where they may make a mistake. On the other hand, experts adopted a more constructivist approach to their learning, assimilating new information with old through experience, and because of a solid base of prior knowledge they were more inclined to know when to make calculated risks (or take golden opportunities). This is why it is essential that there is sufficient hand holding and teacher led instruction to ensure that the learner is provided with the key knowledge that they need, in order to develop into experts. Effective scaffolding should be slowly removed over a series of weeks/months to enable learners to become less dependent on the teacher and support their transition towards being an expert.

Illustration by Oliver Caviglioli


3. Novices don’t put in the time to fully understand the game – Novices don’t take the time to master the basics, whereas experts put in hours of practice and understand the basics and the more nuanced elements of the game.


Deliberate practice is crucial to becoming an expert according to Ericson et al who states that ‘many characteristics once believed to reflect innate talent are actually the result of intense practice’. Many novices (myself included) may be subject to the Dunning-Kruger effect so are misinformed and feel that they may not need the practice to master something. Our duty as teachers is to not only provide time to practise, but also encourage learners to understand the benefits of doing so (more on this below).

Illustration by Oliver Caviglioli



4. Experts are more disciplined – Experts tend to be more consistent in making decisions and taking action. Experts understand that you can make the correct decision and still lose, but they focus on making correct decisions, not on trying to force a particular outcome


In his book, David Didau (2015) informs us that ‘we are predisposed to examine the surface structure of a problem rather than recognising that its underlying deep structure is the same as something we already know’. In essence, when approached with a new problem, unless we are an expert, we are less likely to make links with existing knowledge and prior experiences to solve a problem. Novices simply don’t have sufficient information to draw upon and so can’t make informed decisions, thus focusing on the detail, whereas experts are more likely to focus on the structure of a problem and take a more consistent approach. For example, if given a maths problem to solve, the expert may think of similar problems they’ve faced and compare the structures to help them make sense of the information, whereas a novice may just try to tackle the problem without an idea of what they’re trying to find, or what the outcome might be. With this in mind, teachers need to be modelling explicitly how to approach problems making use of prior knowledge, before scaffolding problems for learners with support mechanisms that can be removed once experience is acquired.

Illustration by Oliver Caviglioli



5. Private victory precedes public victory – Experts spend a lot more time practising, which takes tremendous patience. Their real victories aren’t at the blackjack table, but in their homes practising.


As mentioned above, expert performances only arise through dedicated and deliberate practice. This according to Ericsson et al requires motivation and perseverance, which in itself is problematic, particularly if we want learners to engage in deliberate, directed practice outside of the classroom.

‘Deliberate practice is not inherently enjoyable and that individuals are motivated to engage in it by its instrumental value in improving performance. Hence, interested individuals need to be engaging in the activity and motivated to improve performance before they begin deliberate practice.’

So our role as educators is to establish an environment where learners focus on long term improvement through having a high self-efficacy for learning. To avoid learned helplessness and to encourage a high self-efficacy we should guide students towards success through modelling, scaffolding and giving sound feedback to help move them forward.

Illustration by Oliver Caviglioli


In summary, to support our learners from novice to expert we need to treat them as a novice initially and not as an expert. If we try to teach our novice learners to be scientists by giving them inquiry based science projects to complete, or treat them as hair stylists by placing them straight into a hair salon, they will act as novices (Kirschner et al). I believe, based upon what I have written (here, here and here) that the following approaches should be taken to support our learners to become experts:

  • We are experts in the subject matter ourselves
  • We plan the learning to maximise long term retention (distributed and interleaved practice)
  • We model correct practice and chunk the learning to reduce cognitive load
  • We scaffold difficult concepts to enable learners to more easily understand, before slowly removing the support mechanisms to allow greater independence
  • We provide regular opportunities for retrieval practice
  • We provide learners with sufficient time and space to practise, hone their skills and take necessary risks
  • We support the transfer of knowledge and skills within the subject through well planned and scaffolded activities.
  • We conduct regular checks on all learners’ understanding which goes beyond that of superficial questioning/observation
  • We provide task-oriented, rather than ego-oriented feedback in a timely and specific manner to move learning forward
  • We involve learners in their own assessment and one another’s against clear success criteria
  • We actively encourage learners to practise beyond the classroom through challenging homework that feeds into future lessons


Special thanks go to Oliver Caviglioli for his brilliant visuals to support the text.

Lesson objectives – what are we measuring?

“The lesson objectives could have been written a bit more measurable.”


My questions I want to answer in this blog post are the following:

  • What does that statement mean?
  • Do learning objectives need to be written so that they’re measurable?
  • How should we write lesson intentions to maximise learning?


Or should I set myself an objective? By the end of this post I will:

  • Be able to identify what a measurable lesson objective is.
  • Be able to analyse the impact of measurable objectives.
  • Be able to identify different methods of writing lesson intentions.


The comment in the title was made during a recent joint observation. Whilst on the surface it appeared to make sense, upon reflection, I’m not convinced by it and would like to explore it further.

Current educational ideologies (particularly in vocational education) lead to a primarily product based curricula, whereby meeting behavioural objectives forms the basis of our teaching, with teachers accountable for and judged on their ability to produce results as opposed to the more developmental, process based curricula. I don’t necessarily have a problem with this, in fact, I’m broadly in favour of this type of curricula,  but whatever curriculum approach is chosen, I do have a problem with being told that lesson objectives/outcomes/intentions/anything else you want to call them, should look a certain way. Many in the FE and Skills sector (perhaps education more generally) see learning as a linear and singular process of moving learners from A to B in a lesson and once they’ve achieved a desired outcome, then it is assumed that the learners have learnt. This view is wrong. Learning is liminal (particularly in post-16 education), with learners in a continual stage of development towards a longer term outcome over a series of lessons. I’ve said before that if ever a definition of learning could be agreed, it would certainly involve something about knowledge acquisition and probably something to do with long term memory and being able to retrieve information. Therefore, learning does not happen in isolated lessons.

 As David Didau (2015, p.279) notes:

all too often our learning intentions are lesson menus: here is what you should know or be able to do by the end of today’s lesson. Unless we have very low aspirations for our students, they are unlikely to do more than merely mimic the understanding or expertise we want them to master.’ David goes on to say thatif we were to share our intention for students to learn threshold concepts, then we could tell them that it might take them weeks to wrap their heads around such troublesome knowledge’.

This is also supported by Hussey and Smith, who argue that:

‘learning outcomes cannot be defined with the kind of precision that has been supposed, that they stand in need of interpretation within a context… The idea, currently popular—that first year degree students must describe, second year students must explain and evaluation should characterise their work in the third year—must be replaced with the idea that these activities are visited and revisited as the students’ progress and in accordance with the requirements of the subject matter.’

Indeed Hattie (2012) cites a very low (0.12) effect-size for behavioural objectives. With the aforementioned in mind, the whole notion of measurable objectives in a single lesson is beginning to look absurd. 


According to Hattie (2012) however, there are five essential components to learning intentions and success criteria to support effective learning, these are: challenge, commitment, confidence, high expectations; and conceptual understanding. I have said before that I’m not convinced about success criteria here, but in Wiliam and Thompson’s (2007) work, they hold the work of Wiggins and McTighe (2000) in high regard. This work advocates a two-stage approach to creating and sharing the learning intentions with learners. This includes clarifying the learning goals (what is worthy and requiring understanding?), and establishing success criteria (what would count as evidence of understanding?). Perhaps it is the success criteria where things become measurable?


I think about my own practice as a teacher trainer. If I were to teach say, formative assessment and set my objectives as:

‘To understand the 5 key strategies of formative assessment’ 

This is certainly worthy of understanding. Then if I were to make the success criteria measurable:

‘learners will be able to identify 5 key strategies for formative assessment’

 ‘learners will be able to explain the 5 key strategies of formative assessment’.

Whilst this is measurable and learners may be able to do both of these by the end of the lesson, this would be merely a performance and not learning, moreover, there may be learners that can critically analyse 3 strategies (beyond the success criteria) and know very little about the other 2. Does this mean that the lesson has failed? Of course not – it all seems rather short sighted and restrictive.


Fuch and Fuch inform us that:

‘teachers may prefer short-term goal measurement because it is easier to understand and it guides instruction more directly by providing information about when to progress from one skill to another [however] short-term goal measurement may be misleading: While students master a series of instructional objectives, progress on more global indices of achievement may be limited, failing to reflect this gain’.

For this reason, I ask myself whether learners would benefit more from a question or testing a hypothesis over a series of lessons:

What makes formative assessment effective? (question)

Formative assessment is only effective when feedback is provided (hypothesis)


With something like the above, the lesson intention is broad in a sense that it allows for a range of outcomes in the lesson and over a series of lessons, but tight enough to focus the learners on the content and be clear with what they’re learning about. Clarity is key. I believe that learners should know what they are doing in the lesson and why they are doing it. I mean you wouldn’t bake a cake without knowing the kind of thing you’re after and you wouldn’t go on a journey without knowing the destination, but does the way you write this on your lesson plan or white board really benefit anyone? It becomes a tick box approach – something we need to move away from in education.


Oh by the way, did we all meet the lesson objectives?


Unlinked reading:

Didau, D. (2015). What if everything you knew about education was wrong? Carmarthen, Wales: Crown House Publishing Limited.

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning. Oxon, UK: Routledge.