One of the important challenges in model-driven engineering is how to improve the quality of the models' design in order to help designers understand them. Refactoring represents an efficient technique to improve the quality of a design while preserving its behavior. Most of existing work on model refactoring relies on declarative rules to detect refactoring opportunities and to apply the appropriate refactorings. However, a complete specification of refactoring opportunities requires a huge number of rules. In this paper, we consider the refactoring mechanism as a combinatorial optimization problem where the goal is to find good refactoring suggestions starting from a small set of refactoring examples applied to similar contexts. Our approach, named model refactoring by example, takes as input an initial model to refactor, a set of structural metrics calculated on both initial model and models in the base of examples, and a base of refactoring examples extracted from different software systems and generates as output a sequence of refactorings. A solution is defined as a combination of refactoring operations that should maximize as much as possible the structural similarity based on metrics between the initial model and the models in the base of examples. A heuristic method is used to explore the space of possible refactoring solutions. To this end, we used and adapted a genetic algorithm as a global heuristic search. The validation results on different systems of real-world models taken from open-source projects confirm the effectiveness of our approach. Copyright © 2014 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.