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Best Teaching Practices

Using Analogies

Research Findings

Although some research studies prior to the 1980s have been conducted on the use of analogies, a new interest in this area has produced several in-depth studies that indicate that using analogies assists in concept development. This is particularly true when students have alternative conceptions about a particular concept. Research in this area tends to be qualitative in nature, and the conceptual change that occurs may not result in higher scores on multiple choice science tests of facts and concepts.

In the Classroom

Textbooks and teachers sometimes use analogies to help familiarize students with concepts that are abstract and outside their previous experience. To be effective, analogies must be familiar to students, and their features/functions must be congruent with those of the target. Since adult perspectives are not identical with those of adolescents, it is not surprising that, even though students are familiar with the physical phenomena or event that might be used as the analogy, they are not always familiar with those features that provide the similarity to the target. Once a suitable analogy is found, considerable time must be spent by students in discussion of similarities between the analogy and the target. Exercise caution to be sure that students remember the content, not just the analogy.

It is also important for students to understand how the analogy and target differ to avoid confusion or misconceptions. Sometimes multiple analogies must be used to teach the same concept. Studies of chemistry and biology instruction show that some students, who are exposed to and who become skilled in the use of multiple analogies, develop a more scientific understanding of particular science concepts than do students who concentrate on one acceptable analogy. Use of multiple analogies in a bridging sequence has been successful in helping students make sense of initially counter-intuitive ideas.

Analogies occurring in texts may be simple-based on surface similarities--or more complex (particularly in chemistry and physics)-based on similarities of function. The use of functional analogies appears to be more appropriate at the secondary level, where students have developed appropriate reasoning strategies.

The discussion that occurs when using analogies not only helps students construct their own knowledge but also assists teachers in basing instruction on students' prior knowledge and existing alternative conceptions. Analogies may also motivate students to learn by provoking their interest. Finally, having students create their own analogies also appears to be an effective instructional strategy, however, teachers should analyze their students' analogies carefully to determine what sense of the world they are making.


Journal Articles - To access most of these Journal Articles, you must be a student, faculty or staff member at an OhioLINK affiliated institution. Access to OhioLINK may be available to Ohioans through their local, public, or school libraries. Contact OPLIN, INFOhio, or your local library for more information.

Using Analogies to Improve the Teaching Performance of Pre-service Teachers
Journal of Research in Science Teaching, Vol. 44, Issue: 4, April 2007. pp. 565 - 585
James, Mark C.; Scharmann, Lawrence C.

Prior research in both education and cognitive science has identified analogy making as a powerful tool for explanation as well as a fundamental mechanism for facilitating an individual's construction of knowledge. While a considerable body of research exists focusing on the role analogy plays in learning science concepts, relatively little is known about how instruction in the use of analogies might influence the teaching performance of preservice teachers. The primary objective of this study was to investigate the relationship between pedagogical analogy use and pedagogical reasoning ability in a sample of preservice elementary teachers (PTs), a group that has been identified for their particular difficulties in teaching science. The study utilized a treatment/contrast group design in which the treatment group was provided instruction that guided them in the generation of analogies to aid in the explanation phase of learning cycle lessons. A relationship between analogy use and positive indicants of teaching performance was observed and a case study of a low performing preservice teacher who drastically improved teaching performance using analogy-based pedagogy is presented. A notable effect on conceptual understanding of Newton's Third Law as a result of two brief analogy-based demonstration lessons was also observed. © 2007 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. J Res Sci Teach 44: 565-585, 2007.

Fostering conceptual change by analogies-between Scylla and Charybdis
Learning and Instruction, Vol. 11, Issue: 4-5, August - October, 2001. pp. 283-303
Duit, Reinders; Roth, Wolff-Michael; Komorek, Michael; Wilbers, Jens

A growing body of research shows that analogies may be powerful tools for guiding students from their pre-instructional conceptions towards science concepts. But it has also become apparent that analogies may deeply mislead students' learning processes. Conceptual change, to put it into other words, may be both supported and hampered by the same analogy. The study presented here was designed to investigate the processes of analogy generation and development and to reveal the microstructure of analogical reasoning. Analogical reasoning was investigated during a grade 10 physics unit on the limited predictability of chaotic systems. Analogies played a key role in the instructional module to make explicit function and structure of certain chaotic systems. Analogies were also used to introduce the notion of "chaotic systems" embracing prototypical examples of chaotic systems studied. The theoretical orientation of the study merges key features of conceptual change approaches and social-constructivist studies on communities of learners. Hence, students were provided with substantial periods of time to generate their own analogies or employ analogies provided by the teacher to understand chaotic systems. There are many cases in our study that illustrate the affordances and pitfalls of analogies in promoting conceptual change. Hence the use of analogies as teaching and learning aids may always be a delicate course between Scylla and Charybdis.

Analogies and the 5E Model
Science Teacher, Vol. 74, Issue: 1, Jan 2007. pp40-45
Orgill, Mary Kay; Thomas, Megan

Science classes are full of abstract or challenging concepts that are easier to understand if an analogy is used to illustrate the points. Effective analogies motivate students, clarify students' thinking, help students overcome misconceptions, and give students ways to visualize abstract concepts. When they are used appropriately, analogies can also promote students' meaningful learning and conceptual growth. Analogies can be useful instructional tools in each phase of the 5E instructional model. The 5E instructional model is designed to incorporate all aspects of inquiry learning environments by "engaging" students and allowing students to "explore" the concepts being introduced, discover "explanations" for the concepts they are learning, and "elaborate" on what they have learned by applying their knowledge to new situations. Throughout the process the model offers multiple opportunities for "evaluation" of students' understanding. This article briefly describes the phases in the 5E model and provides suggestions for using analogies in each phase. (Contains 4 figures.)

Scientific Analogies and Their Use in Teaching Science
Science and Education, Vol. 14, Issue: 3-5, July 2005. pp. 199 - 233
Kipnis, Nahum

Analogy in science knew its successes and failures, as illustrated by examples from the eighteenth-century physics. At times, some scientists abstained from using a certain analogy on the ground that it had not yet been demonstrated. Several false discoveries in the 18th and early 19th centuries appeared to support their caution. It is now clear that such a position reflected a methodological confusion that resulted from a failure to distinguish between particular and general analogies. Considering analogy as a hierarchical structure provides a new insight into testing an analogy. While warning science teachers of dangers associated with use of analogy, historical cases and their analysis provided here may encourage them to use analogy more extensively while avoiding misconceptions. An argument is made that the history of science may be a better guide than philosophy of science and cognitive psychology when it concerns the role of analogy in science and in teaching science for understanding.

MARVIN: A Web-Based System for Representing, Retrieving, and Visualizing Analogies
World Wide Web, Vol. 7, Issue: 4, December 2004. pp. 385-419
Foxwell, Harry J.; Menasce, Daniel A.

Analogies are essential in human cognition, reasoning, learning, communication, and problem solving. They can have a profound and broad effect on how we view and understand our world. In this paper we discuss the design, implementation, and evaluation of MARVIN (Markup for Analogy Representation and Visualization for the InterNet), a Web-based system for representing, retrieving, and visualizing human-conceived analogies that provides a medium and a common language for analogy practitioners to share their analogies. We developed a compact XML content model for analogy expressions for use in Web-based environments, and show that the model is capable of representing a wide range of human-conceived analogies. We demonstrate, using XSLT, several example methods for visualizing analogy expressions that use our model. We demonstrate methods for storing and retrieving such expressions and for ranking the retrieved expressions. We designed and implemented MARVIN to demonstrate these methods. A formative evaluation of the MARVIN system found that its visualization and retrieval capabilities are of value to analogy authors and end users. A performance test showed that MARVIN's analogy retrieval is scalable to large analogy archives.

Teaching Teachers to Use Analogies
This site is being provided to promote the use of analogies as a core element in teaching science. Analogy-making is a powerful technique used compulsively by ALL accomplished teachers - but it is also much more! As Douglas Hofstadter states, "Analogy-making is at the core of human cognition". By learning about analogies, teachers learn to master an extremely effective teaching technique for explaining new concepts, but they also are provided with a solid theoretical foundation upon which to build a philosophy of teaching and learning. My interest in analogies in teaching and learning stems from my dissertation work under Larry Scharmann at Kansas State University. I am also deeply indebted to John Staver and Emmett Wright for their support and many insightful discussions. Mark James, Ph.D. (

Using Metaphors, Models and Analogies in Teaching Science: A Review of the Literature
Observation of science teaching in many classrooms, suggests that use of models and analogies may produce as much good as harm, creating acceptable student understanding at the same time generating misconceptions and causing more confused learning. Research has identified the problems for student understanding caused by the inappropriate use of analogies. Research suggests that the use of a teaching strategy for the presentation of models, metaphors and analogies will enhance student understanding and reduce misconceptions. One of these is Glynn's (1991) model of Teaching-With-Analogies (TWA), a model developed from an analysis of science textbooks.