Analogies are a key component of human thinking and understanding. They’ve stimulated great feats of problem-solving and discovery. They are also a classic way to foster learning by applying prior knowledge to new concepts.
Researchers say that a critical aspect of an effective analogy is that the two areas of comparison are superficially different. For example, comparing an atom to the solar system or a database to a filing cabinet.
This is because analogies are non-literal comparisons. They highlight one or more points of similarity between two very different things. They help learners construct new mental models by transferring knowledge from a known domain to an unknown domain.
Analogies often take the format that “A is like B” where “A” is an unknown abstract concept and “B” is something known, which is often something concrete. One way to refer to the parts of an analogy is that the unfamiliar concept is known as the target and the familiar concept is the analog. In the analogy, “An IP address is like a phone number,” the IP address is the target and the phone number is the analog.
Map Your Analogies
Some researchers recommend the use of a mapping technique to come up with effective analogies. To do this, map the characteristics between two domains and see if there are sufficient relationships to make it work (shown below). Then assess the differences between the target and the analog concepts and address the shortcomings of the analogy. Finally, evaluate the new representation.
Mapping is also a good practice activity for learners who are trying to understand a complex concept. Teachers use it in schools. Why not ask adult learners to map analogies in an online exercise?
Looking over the research, several factors stand out for making analogies effective. Some may seem obvious, but together they create a strong list of guidelines.
- Ensure learners really need an analogy. If they are already familiar with a concept, then don’t use one.
- Depending on the learner’s educational experience or familiarity with the language, you may need to explain what an analogy is.
- The similarity of the relationships between the domains in an analogy is important for making it work.
- Analogies based on familiar concepts are better understood.
- Clarifying the structure of the familiar domain can help avoid misconceptions. It’s difficult to know the extent of a learner’s background knowledge.
- Being able to visualize the familiar domain may be important for some learners. Concrete analogs work well.
- When mapping, the relationships should be clear and unambiguous.
- The relations between the familiar and unfamiliar domains should form a cohesive conceptual structure.
- The use of multiple analogies can help prevent misconceptions.
- Check out the “Teaching with Analogies Model” by Shawn M. Glynn. You can adapt this to adult online learning.
Don’t Cause Misconceptions
Isn’t there always something to watch out for? Analogies aren’t a cure for everything. Research shows they can cause learners to create incorrect mental models. In a paper that examined the problems with analogies for instruction, the author states, “When a striking, pedagogically efficient analogy is employed that incompletely represents some target of understanding, the incomplete representation often remains as the only representation of the target concept.” (Spiro)
The author goes on to point out some problems with analogies:
- An analogy can have a property that is indirectly misleading. The property may not be a central point, but it might inadvertently cause an incorrect understanding.
- An analogy may miss key points. This may prevent learners from building a complete mental model.
- An analogy may focus on superficial features rather than underlying relationships and structures.
But now that you have the guidelines, you’ll do an excellent job. What analogies have you used for instruction? Share them in the Comments.
- Aubusson, Peter J. , Allan G. Harrison, Stephen M. Ritchie. Metaphor and Analogy in Science Education. Springer; 2006.
- Curtis, R. V. and Reigeluth, C. M. The use of analogies in written text. Instructional Science 13:99-117, 1984.
- Iding, Mary K. How analogies foster learning from science texts. Instructional Science 25: 233–253, 1997.
- Spiro, Rand J. Multiple Analogies for Complex Concepts: Antidotes for Analogy-induced Misconception in Advanced Knowledge Acquisition.
Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, October 1988.
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