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. But writing analogies isn’t always easy. This article explores ways to write better analogies for learning.
Researchers say that a critical aspect of an effective analogy is that the two areas of comparison are superficially different. For example, stating that an atom is like a miniature solar system or that a database is like 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.
Format of Analogies
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. Analogy experts have their own terminology: the unfamiliar concept is the target and the familiar concept is the analog. In the analogy, “An IP address is like a street address” the IP address is the target and the street address is the analog.
How to Generate Effective Analogies
You may wish to use this mapping technique to come up with effective analogies. First, map the characteristics between two domains and see if there are sufficient relationships to make it work (shown below). Next, 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. Here is an example worksheet for mapping a factory to a cell that a teacher might use in the classroom. Why not ask adult learners to map analogies in an online exercise so they can better understand a concept?
Guidelines for Creating Effective Analogies
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.
- Clarify the structure of the familiar domain to avoid misconceptions. It’s difficult to know the extent of a learner’s background knowledge.
- Consider visualizing the familiar domain as concrete analogs work well.
- When you map target and analog domains, make sure the relationships are 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, 1998).
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.
Valid analogies are a good teaching tool that aids comprehension. Poor analogies may cause more problems than no analogy.
- 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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