Over the past few decades, cognitive psychologists have found evidence for the following 6 strategies for effective learning:
Today, we are talking about concrete examples. Abstract ideas and concepts are harder to remember than those that are concrete (1). One way of getting around this issue is to use concrete examples to illustrate abstract ideas. For a concrete example of a concrete example, see this post.
Surface features vs. underlying concepts
Novices will tend to focus on the surface features of the examples you give them. For example, if you show novices examples of different physics problems, they will group together the problems that look similar, rather than those that actually are similar in terms of the underlying structure (2) - see this blog post.
When Megan taught her first class as a graduate student, in one class she gave her students candy to demonstrate operant conditioning, specifically "positive reinforcement". At the end of the semester, students just remembered that she gave them candy - not the concepts she was trying to demonstrate with the candy!
How many examples?
Giving multiple examples with different surface features will help students understand the underlying abstract idea better than if you just give them the abstract idea with its definition, and better than if you give them the abstract idea and just one example. See this blog post for a discussion of why we need to use multiple examples (3), (4).
Making the link
But, it's not enough to just give students all of these examples. Due to the "curse of knowledge", we as teachers might feel that it is obvious how the examples connect to the abstract ideas. It's important for us to also make the link between the concrete examples to the abstract ideas. We, as teachers, need to make this link explicit, explaining why and how the examples illustrate the abstract concepts. We can also point out which specific features of the examples match up to the abstract concept. Otherwise, we risk the students only remembering the concrete example itself, and not how it relates to the abstract idea itself.
We hope you enjoyed this podcast! Check back in 2 weeks, when we’ll be releasing a “bite-size research” episode describing an interesting paper on concrete examples.
The Learning Scientists Podcast is funded by The Wellcome Trust.
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(1) Paivio, A., Walsh, M., & Bons, T. (1994). Concreteness effects on memory: When and why? Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 20, 1196-1204.
(2) Chi, M. T. H., Feltovich, P. J., & Glaser, R. (1981). Categorization and representation of physics problems by experts and novices. Cognitive Science, 5, 121-152.
(3) Gick, M. L., & Holyoak, K. J. (1980). Analogical problem solving. Cognitive Psychology, 12, 306-355.
(4) Gick, M. L., & Holyoak, K. J. (1983). Schema induction and analogical transfer. Cognitive Psychology, 15, 1-38.