How To Write Better Analogies For Learning

analogiesAnalogies 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.

Analogy Format

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.

analogy-mapping

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?

Guidelines

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.

  1. Ensure learners really need an analogy. If they are already familiar with a concept, then don’t use one.
  2. Depending on the learner’s educational experience or familiarity with the language, you may need to explain what an analogy is.
  3. The similarity of the relationships between the domains in an analogy is important for making it work.
  4. Analogies based on familiar concepts are better understood.
  5. Clarifying the structure of the familiar domain can help avoid misconceptions. It’s difficult to know the extent of a learner’s background knowledge.
  6. Being able to visualize the familiar domain may be important for some learners. Concrete analogs work well.
  7. When mapping, the relationships should be clear and unambiguous.
  8. The relations between the familiar and unfamiliar domains should form a cohesive conceptual structure.
  9. The use of multiple analogies can help prevent misconceptions.
  10. 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.

REFERENCES

  1. Aubusson, Peter J. , Allan G. Harrison, Stephen M. Ritchie. Metaphor and Analogy in Science Education. Springer; 2006.
  2. Curtis, R. V. and Reigeluth, C. M. The use of analogies in written text. Instructional Science 13:99-117, 1984.
  3. Iding, Mary K. How analogies foster learning from science texts. Instructional Science 25: 233–253, 1997.
  4. 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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Comments

  1. Clara says

    Great to read about strategies on how to apply analagies well in elearning.

    In my experience, SMEs often have a difficult time coming up with an analogy in the first place, despite recognizing the benefits of using one. It’s a very particular skill.

    In the post Christopher shared, one tip was to think of objects or actions that most people are ‘familiar’ with, such as what we find in nature or around the house. If anyone has other ideas on how to encourage a SME to come up with an analogy, I’d love to hear.

    [Reply]

    Connie Malamed Reply:

    Hi Clara,
    I think that is a good point that people may have difficulty coming up with one. What about doing a search for, “such and such is like …” and also using creativity techniques, such as sketching and brainstorming and simply asking others?
    Thanks for your comment.
    Connie

    [Reply]

  2. Pam Jones says

    Great Post Connie – thanks for the ideas. They’ve come at a really useful time. I’m about to start a new project where we need to make difficult to understand concepts, easier to understand. Using analogies like this may just be an approach.

    [Reply]

    Connie Malamed Reply:

    I wrote it for you, Pam. Glad you liked the timing :-)
    Connie

    [Reply]

  3. says

    Great post, Connie! Analogies do indeed help out a lot when trying to explain difficult concepts. But, like Clara in the comments section says, coming up with analogies that students will understand can be quite trying.

    [Reply]

    Connie Malamed Reply:

    Yes, thinking hard is always the difficult part!
    Connie

    [Reply]

  4. Ruth says

    Great post! I can definitely see how analogies would work in a classroom and have, in fact, used them and had them clear up concepts in the past. But I am not sure how easy it would be to know enough about our e-learners to know what they would be familiar with. I would hate to confuse someone even more on a hard to understand concept. So, yes, it would be very difficult knowing which analogies would work for everyone. I have learned in the classroom that there are so many different backgrounds in the students that it can be difficult to come up with an analogy that they all understand. I find myself, even in just reading a book to the class, trying to help the students understand what words as simple as a condominium is in 4th grade. It is easy to judge in the classroom if students understand the analogy based off of their facial expressions, but we don’t have that on the e-learning community.

    [Reply]

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