Analogical Reasoning

Here is an analogy for you. The flow of electrons in a wire is like sugar particles flowing through a straw. And my point is?

If you are like me, I struggle to visualize electrical concepts such as voltage, amps, and resistance. I can visualize mechanical concepts, but electrical concepts have often been faceless to me. This is because I haven’t seen these electrons.

Luckily, there is a way we can learn difficult-to-grasp concepts. We do this through the use of analogical reasoning. That is, we use analogies that help link new concepts to something we already know.

Dr. Arthur Markman, Professor and Director of the Human Dimensions of Organizations program at UT Austin, has conducted numerous studies on analogical reasoning. He explains that analogical reasoning is the thought process we use to generate analogies, which are essentially identified relationships between two or more domains.

Let’s go back to the flow of electrons for a moment. If we make the analogy of electrons to sugar particles, it helps us identify a “relationship” between the two domains. Even though we can’t see electrons, we can still visualize them as individual sugar particles. This is because we all have prior experiences of seeing, touching, and tasting sugar particles. We can relate to sugar.

We can also make the analogy of an electrical wire to a straw. Both of them are long and cylindrical in shape. Although on the surface, some features do not appear to match. For example, the wire is solid, but the straw is hollow. Yet when we visualize sugar particles flowing through air molecules in a straw, we can better visualize electrons flowing through copper molecules in a wire.

Let’s take this further.

What if you want to better understand what the term “voltage” means? Let’s expand the analogy. If we want the sugar particles to flow farther or faster in the straw, we need to increase the pressure on the sugar particles. In electricity, if we increase the voltage, or electrical pressure, we make the electrons flow farther and faster in the wire. See how analogies can help us learn new concepts?

What about the term “amps“? The volume of sugar that flows through a straw is similar to the electrical current that flows through a wire. Just as a larger-diameter straw will carry a higher volume of sugar, larger diameter wires will carry more electrical current, or amps.

We’re on a roll with analogies. How about the term “resistance” as it applies in electricity? With sugar, if there is a kink in the straw, the sugar will not flow as well because of the decreased “diameter” of the straw. Thus, the resistance to sugar flow increases. Similarly, if we decrease the diameter of a wire, the resistance to electrical current (amps) will increase.

This is the power of analogical reasoning. The tip to take away is to find a way to use analogies for the more difficult concepts introduced in the course you are designing. This is not easy work. It takes a great deal of thought at times, but the payoff is much greater for your learners.

Image by Nico Cavallotto / CC BY

About Parker Grant, PhD

Parker Grant is the founder of Instructional Design Industry, an online community for learning designers, instructional designers, and many other learning professionals (new and experienced). Parker holds a PhD in Adult Learning and a MS in Educational Technology. His consulting firm, Learning Connects, continues to offer learning design and development services.

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