How to Design Analogies for eLearning

Analogies are a powerful way to explain “unknown” topics by linking them to what the learners already know. Since learning is really about the transformation of experience into knowledge, a component of this process has to do with what is called analogical reasoning.

When a learner grasps new concepts with analogies, it’s like putting their ability to learn on steroids. This is because analogies provide the shortcut to understanding.

Let’s say you are designing an eLearning module about sleep apnea. What would be the analogy you would use to explain what happens during sleep apnea? Virend Somers, MD, PhD, Professor of Medicine at the Mayo Clinic, describes that sleep apnea occurs when the upper airway (respiratory tract) collapses during sleep. He likens this process to sucking on a “wet paper straw.” To visualize this concept, check out this short sleep apnea video, where you can see how the wet paper straw analogy can be applied. The video does not mention of a wet paper straw, but this is where you come in as an instructional designer to help the learner make the connection between the collapse of the upper airway (shown in the video) to the concept of sucking on a wet paper straw.

See how analogies can be used? It’s a powerful learning technique. For more on analogies, visit my Slideshare presentation below to discover how to use analogies in eLearning. Would love to hear about some of your favorite analogies in the comment box below.

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.


  • In the arena of ‘experiential’ learning; analogies and metaphors is an excellent approach to help the learner visualize, establish relevant examples and support job related considerations.

    We learn ‘by doing’. The use of role play, scenario based learning, role play – including specific job activities is a wonderful way of learning, reinforcing a new approach and engaging both a variety of learners.

    Lastly, we need to be careful about the analogies used. They become the “standard” of comparison, focus and a script for future dialogue and application. Aim to use a few analogies that provide either a varied approach or other examples that the learner can relate to.

    • Sandy, I agree on all points. Careful use of analogies is important as they are not easy to make, but very easy to abuse. TV commercials and political advertisements often use analogies to persuade people on false convictions. So in the context of instructional design, we have the obligation to ensure analogies are appropriately used.

      With respect to learning by ‘doing’, see This post refers to Dr. Edelman’s work on that “doing is prior to understanding.” The ‘doing’ comes from the multifaceted experiences you made reference to – such as role play, SBL, job activities, and so forth. Since learning is a multifaceted process, analogies make up only one facet of many others.

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