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Analogies in eLearning

Early in my training career, I became frustrated. I was designing and teaching technical support training. The typical process involved taking 25 people “off the street” and training them to be technical support representatives in two weeks. As the classes rolled on, I noticed a consistent pattern—there were always 1-3 people in every class who couldn’t catch on and would ultimately be let go (if not in training, then shortly after they reached production). As a trainer, I was completely frustrated by this. My job was to help people become successful—not to see them let go.

One day, after listening to a local ASTD session from Dennis R. Rader (co-author of the book Living Toad Free), I decided to stay after the session and pose my dilemma to him. What he told me not only made complete sense, but also changed the way I designed training and has stayed with me for 15 years. “It’s simple,” he said. “The people who can’t catch on are those who don’t have an existing web of understanding about the concept you are trying to teach. You’re throwing concepts their way, but those concepts don’t stick because there is nothing for them to stick to. Most of your learners who are failing are probably those with little background in computers, am I right?”

He was right—it was simple. My learners didn’t have existing schemas. As the years have gone by, I have learned that one of the most effective ways to help learners without frames of reference for a topic is to use an analogy. In this way, they can borrow from something they already know and use that to build on. ELearning provides a unique environment to take the use of analogies to the next level. Consider the five benefits of using analogies in eLearning:

1. Analogies Speed Up Comprehension & Reduce Learner Frustration

You don’t have to teach everything to the learner from the ground up, despite how tempting it may be. Evaluate the concept you are trying to teach and ask yourself, “Is this similar to something that most of my learners would already understand?” Identifying a strong comparison between your concept and something they may have a pre-existing understanding of means they can transfer that knowledge over to the new concept. Then, you both get a head start before you even begin. This success helps reduce the chances of the learner becoming frustrated when they can’t catch on, which can be detrimental to their overall comprehension. Once the comparison has been made and a conceptual foundation has been set, you can spend your course time explaining the portion of this concept that is different from the comparison object you have used. This differential approach appeals to the brain, it naturally likes comparisons. Analogies have been shown to speed comprehension, improve the quality of retention, and reduce misunderstanding.

2. Analogies Provide Visualization That Boosts Retention

In many cases, analogies can be used to create a linkage between an intangible concept and a concrete visual.

Example: In one course I designed we wanted to encourage learners to reflect upon the importance of doing the right thing in the workplace. The learners were resistant to doing the right thing for others because often it came at a personal financial loss due to job context. However, through analysis and employee interviews we discovered that those employees who chose to do the right thing for a co-worker, despite immediate financial loss, often enjoyed reciprocity from that co-worker for years to come – more than making up for that initial financial loss. To emphasize this discovery in the training, we compared doing the right thing to throwing a boomerang. When you first throw one, it feels like you are throwing something away. But if you give it a little time you will see that benefits do come back to you, just like the boomerang. As we introduced this concept, the boomerang was “thrown” into the distance, and the learner watched it return as we talked about the things that would come back to them when they chose to do the right thing for someone else.


3. Analogies Can Easily Become Interactions

Visual information has been proven to provide stronger retention, but that’s not the only advantage you gain with analogies. In eLearning, visual concepts are only a few steps away from becoming interactions.

Example 1: In the example of the boomerang, we moved from introducing the concept and its visual right into an activity that allowed the learner to interact with that same visual using a case study from his environment. The learner could click the boomerang to demonstrate his desire to do the right thing, which would “throw it”. He could then watch it progress away from him. The case study returned realistic data about what could happen or what it could feel like to take a short-term loss in order to do the right thing. Then, as the boomerang started to circle, the information began to change. The learner could continue to nudge the boomerang back towards him as he saw long-term benefits starting to materialize. Eventually, the activity has the boomerang land back in his hand and summarizes the net effect of doing the right thing.

Example 2: In a course about communication, we discuss how people communicate to us on many different levels simultaneously. We compare this to a radio, which is receiving data on many different channels at the same time – but in order to hear them, we have to be tuned to the right station. The same is true for communication: we have to tune into the frequencies the other person is broadcasting on if we want to hear what message they are sending. To reinforce the concept, the learner can virtually “tune” this radio to change the listening frequency (e.g., Emotional, Factual, Visual). Then, when the customer speaks, he can see what message is being received on the Emotional station, for instance. After practicing this several times, the learner is much more likely to recall this concept the next time he speaks with a customer, and to listen to more than one channel of communication.


4. Analogies Can Change Perception

In many communication and personality style courses, we emphasize to learners that they should adapt their communication style to fit the communication style of the person they are speaking to. The reality, however, is that most people choose to communicate in the same way. A way they are comfortable with, regardless of whom they are talking to. In cases like these, an analogy can help to affect the learner’s reluctance to adapt and do so in a relatively short amount of time.

Example: We first set the stage by asking learners to imagine themselves on the wrong side of a closed door. Then, we make these comparisons:

  • The Door: The other person can be thought of as a door. If that person is open, the learner can access results or new opportunities. If that person or door is closed, the learner is shut off from those results or opportunities.
  • A Lock: The lock on the other person’s door represents the unique set of requirements this person has in order to open (i.e., their communication style).
  • A Key: The key in this analogy represents the communication style the learner is attempting to use with the other person. This key often has unique markings, size, and shape. That may or may not work for the door in question.
  • A Knob: The doorknob represents the learner’s attempt to ask the other person for something (assistance with a project, for example). If it turns, it’s a reflection that the right key has been inserted into the lock. If it doesn’t turn, you are using the wrong key—no matter how many times you jiggle the knob.

Once the stage has been set for this concept, we are now able to change the learner’s belief that their default communication style is good enough. We equate refusing to adapt your style to using the same key for every door. This image seems ridiculous to the learner because it makes them picture something they already know doesn’t work: trying the same key with every door you come across. They can see how it doesn’t make sense to communicate in the same way to every person.

This is one example of how analogies can drive home perception changes faster than lectures about why something “is important.” Of course, combined with the right visuals and activities, the point can be driven home even more strongly.

5. Analogies Can Provide Role Reversal That Produces Empathy

One of the toughest things instructional designers are asked to do is to “affect the affective domain” or in other words, influence the learner’s desire to do something.  Many stakeholders want us to cover “why something is important” in hopes that the learner will choose to behave in a way they’re already capable of.  I have found analogies to be particularly effective in this area because they can oftentimes provide a role reversal that helps the learner appreciate the other side of an issue. This view helps them be more intrinsically motivated to change behavior.

Example: In a customer service course, we wanted to drive home the importance of each representative’s actions on the reputation of the store. To accomplish this, we displayed a beautiful stained glass mosaic. We told some stories from the company’s history where customers had been won over by outstanding service, empathy, and the company choosing to do the right thing by the customer. As each story was told, a reinforcing visual from the story was superimposed over the piece of glass. We concluded with a quote from the company’s CEO about how reputations are built over time (like they had just seen with historical stories from the past 50 years building the mosaic) but that those reputations can be destroyed with one misdeed. As we made this point, we displayed the visual of a hammer to break the glass.

Imagine the learner’s reaction as the hammer comes out to break the glass, especially when they have just watched it be built piece by piece. In this way, they are put in the position of the company management when they receive a damaging customer complaint. This visual puts the learner in a position to more fully appreciate the fragility of a company’s hard-earned reputation. It also provides them an opportunity to reflect upon their role in build or destroying it through carelessness.

As a side note, these types of activities can often duplicate as immersion activities that work well for kicking off a course. It works through creating interest and an emotional connection, which can then open them up to receiving the learning points and activities that are about to come.

Final Cautions

Now that you are all revved up to take flight with analogies, let me encourage you to perform some pre-flight checks for safety:

  • Your Analogy Must Make Sense: Test your analogy from several angles. If you use the wrong concept, you could confuse the learner more than you are helping them or create a false picture that leads to confusion.
  • Your Analogy Should Fit Within a Context: The perfect analogy for your concept may not always work for the context of the training or the culture of the business.
  • Your Analogy Should be Easy to Understand: Just like with anything else we do instructionally, you need to use analogies that are universally understood by your learner base, which could be a wide spread of ages, genders, cultures, and backgrounds.
  • Use Sparingly: Like a great spice, analogies can enhance the natural “flavor” of your existing message but when overused, can spoil the whole plate and leave people running for a glass of water. Use analogies as appropriate and in the right quantity throughout your course.

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