Friday, July 19, 2013

Another technique that I have had good success with is presenting the same abstract principle in significantly different contexts. It is important that the link between the examples and the general principle be explicit, understood by, and ideally discussed by the audience. The best results I have seen is when some of the audience provide the explanation themselves, perhaps with a little bit of coaching. This has additional benefits such as engaging the audience as an active participant in their own learning, and demonstrating to the audience that the material can be understood by their peers. This has been a subject of some interesting recent research1,2 – indeed, reading this is what got me started writing about this topic. Relevance makes an appearance again – examples that are relevant to, or memorable for your audience are more effective.

In physics conservation principles such as the conservation of momentum and conservation of energy are stressed early with multiple examples from mechanics and electromagnetism. After four of five years these and other fundamental principles are ingrained into the learner's thought patterns.

Most disciplines lack such overarching principles so more effort is required to identify and incorporate abstractions into the learning process. Computer science, for example, has my favorite abstract principles, the concept of abstraction, and its child, the layered architecture. However, it is easy, perhaps even common, to focus to tools and algorithms while losing site of these important principles. To teach them in a way that is usable throughout the learners career requires that the abstractions be revisited with a clear discussion on how the principle manifests in each specific situation.

1) Analogical Encoding: Facilitating Knowledge Transfer and Integration, Proceedings of the twenty-sixth annual meeting of the cognitive science society
2) Learning and Transfer: A General Role for Analogical Encoding, Journal of Educational Psychology 2003, Vol. 95, No. 2, 393– 408