Mining the Analogy

motivating students

“Genius without education is like silver in the mine.” Benjamin Franklin may not have realized at the time that he was actually using a tool for the education he espoused, namely, the analogy. More than a simple witticism, the statement can be explored for rich conceptual parallels. Although a familiar teaching tool periodically invoked as a creative clarification, we faculty may not fully appreciate how an analogy might be mined for its full value. In higher education in particular, creation of an effective analogy is a worthy endeavor because it serves not only to instruct, but also potentially to hone the deeper, more complex higher order thinking skills we aspire to teach students.

The cognitive and educational benefits of using analogy (relational or analogical reasoning) in education, especially primary and secondary, have been well explored. Although research-based recommendations have not been made for every college-level subject, principles with practical implications have been identified. Of particular interest to faculty should be the 2015 assertion Richland and Simms offer in WIREs Cognitive Science that “relational reasoning can be productively considered the cognitive underpinning of higher order thinking,” where this type of reasoning is “the process of representing information and objects in the world as systems of relationships (which) can be compared, contrasted, and combined in novel ways depending on contextual goals.” They note the beauty of the dual benefit. Analogy is both “a tool for promoting content acquisition and a basic cognitive mechanism for using information flexibly and across contexts.” For an analogy to serve as both a tool for basic understanding and development of complex reasoning, it must be carefully and intentionally designed and delivered.

An effective analogy may be pursued in many contexts. It may provide motivation in an intro course or illuminate complex concepts of an upper-level subject. It’s an invaluable means of encouraging visualization of what cannot be seen or experienced. Once it creates a spark of recognition, it may cascade into a deeper and broader appreciation of the subject, often creating the desire to delve further. However, as the foundation beneath a house determines its livability, the careful construction of the analogy with a clear view of the instructional goals determines its fruitfulness.

The effective analogy is understandable. The comparisons involve material commonly experienced. In their well-known book, How Learning Works, Ambrose and fellow authors explain, “Examples or analogies that draw on students’ everyday lives and the wider world make new material more understandable and create more robust knowledge representations in students’ minds.”Alternatively, the comparison might involve bridging new and previously learned material. The effectiveness of the analogy then depends on a basic understanding of that prior knowledge.

The effective analogy is explainable; it may be a relatively simple and brief statement, or it may involve multiple facts, concepts, and/or events. It should be thoughtfully limited to the extent that the deeper lessons to learn don’t get lost in an overwhelming number of facts and material. The focus is not the factual details but the deeper and more complex understandings. The drawing of connections should not be assumed as apparent. They need to be explained. However, if much explanation is required, the analogy’s effectiveness will be diluted, and a redesign should be considered.

The effective analogy wisely uses both similarities and differences. Depending on the goal, comparisons can be specifically chosen based on either. A comparison devoid of any similarities or differences, however, will not be as captivating or illustrative.

The most effective analogy has one additional feature: its delivery. Every aspect—the timing, visual presentation, and the method the instructor uses to present—makes a difference. Timing involves understanding where the analogy best fits in the material and its position as appropriate to the rhythm established in the course. A simple verbal presentation is typically not as effective as a visual, side-by-side, detailed comparison. As it is relayed, the addition of gestures and body movements can also enhance its effectiveness.

In higher education, it is time for the analogy to move from being thought of as a simple comparison to a place where it’s appreciated as a robust instructional tool, useful like none other to also encourage and develop deep thinking and lasting learning. Teachers should be encouraged to creatively devise new comparisons or expand on those already in use in a manner that takes full advantage of their potential benefits. Unearthing that silver requires planning and patience, but once in our hands we have an implement that itself functions much like a master craftsman’s tool.

Nancy Schorschinsky is a lecturer at Penn State Schuylkill.

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