Back in my high school Spanish class I struggled to learn a new verb form. It didn’t fit into the neat little list of “I,” “you,” “he,” “she,” “we,” and “they.” I had no clue what to do with it. Then someone informed me, “It’s basically ‘y’all.’ You use it when talking to several people at the same time.” Of course! It suddenly made sense. Using analogies as explanations can be a very helpful tactic, as long as you have the right analogy.
Why Use Analogies?
Analogies are used to make comparisons. If you can liken something new to something the learner already knows and understands it will increase their comfort and rate of uptake. In short, the learner gets a head start if they can connect the new information to something familiar. This happens because the analogy helps them “fill in the blanks.” They can skip from being a complete beginner to having a higher level of understanding in a short period of time.
Considerations for Choosing an Analogy
Choosing the correct analogy is critical. If your learners don’t understand the comparison or it doesn’t match the learning content well it can do more harm than good. Here are some tips for finding a winning match:
- Don’t choose an analogy strictly because it sounds cute or clever. If it’s “fun” but not “functional” it’s useless.
- If you can’t explain how the two things are similar don’t use that pair.
- Don’t use industry jargon if there’s a chance that someone in the audience won’t know the terms.
- No matter what analogy you use, resist the temptation to say that it’s “as easy as ___.” If the learner never learned how to ride a bike then saying, “it’s as easy as riding a bike” will translate to “it’s hard.” That’s discouraging.
- Use analogies to explain or clarify, not just describe. Saying that something “is like pulling teeth” can mean that it’s difficult, not fun, or takes a lot of effort. But if that’s already obvious there’s little point in using an analogy to say it. Think of analogies as a form of example.
- Brainstorm a possible analogy. You may want to get help from a subject matter expert. Then go to someone who doesn’t know anything about the topic and see if they correctly understand the analogy. If they do, you’re off to a good start. If they don’t, you should probably try a different one.
Let’s head back to high school again and look at a math concept. The learning content is an introduction to what “circumference” is. In other words, it’s the linear distance around the edge of a circle. On paper, that sounds a bit daunting. Take a few seconds and see if you can come up with an analogy that can be used to explain this concept.
“Circumference is like ___.”
Here’s mine. “Circumference is like riding a Ferris wheel. It’s the distance travelled while going around a circle, like the riders in the Ferris wheel cars.”
Remember, analogies can be powerful explanations. But if they’re used incorrectly they can lead to frustration and confusion. Choose comparisons based on their value as explanations or clarification, not descriptions or “fun factor.”
If you’d like to read more about training, learning, and instructional design check out the rest of this author’s blogs.
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