Using Analogies to Help Others Learn

Analogies as "Relationship Maps"

Analogies and metaphors can be an effective way to help others map familiar relationships with onto new material. Analogies not only help the learner understand the structure of new material in terms of what he or she already knows, they can help draw attention to key features and conceptual boundaries of the new material being learned (Orgill and Bodner, 2003).  Analogies can also be motivating by increasing the learner’s belief that the new material is something they can master, as the analogy makes it feel like something they have already mastered (Pintrich, Marx, & Boyle, 1993).

However, analogies have their limits in terms of instructional effectiveness.  They can be used by learners “mechanically” without a real understanding of the new relationships, and they can mislead the learner when the learner tries to “stretch a metaphor” too far (Orgill & Bodner, 2003).


  • Use multiple analogies or metaphors to describe the same thing – This can reveal how the deeper conceptual structures persist across differing surface features and help the learner understand the new material beyond a single analogy. “Contrasting cases” are powerful instructional tools for this kind of deep processes (Schwartz & Bransford, 1998).
  • Ask the learner to generate their own analogies – Learning is more meaningful and lasting when learner’s activate their own prior knowledge as part of the experience (Ambrose, et al., 2010).  When students generate their own analogies, you can be sure they are linking the new material to something that matters enough to them for them to call it to mind. Be sure to have them share their analogy with you or a peer, to ensure they understand its limits, as no analogy is a limitless, perfect match.



Ambrose, S.A., Bridges, M.W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M.C., Norman, M.K., & Mayer, R.E. (2010) How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Orgill, M.K. & Bodner, G. (2004). What research tells us about using analogies to teach chemistry. Chemistry Education: Research and Practice, 5(1), 12-32.

Pintrich, P. R., Marx, R. W. & Boyle, R. A. (1993). Beyond cold conceptual change: The role of motivational beliefs and classroom contextual factors in the process of conceptual change. Review of Educational Research, 63, 167-199.

Schwartz, D.L., & Bransford, J.D. (1998). A time for telling. Cognition and Instruction, 16(4), 475-522.