Unleashing the Power of Examples

students paying attention

College teachers often enter their classrooms with thousands of hours of experience in their chosen field, and they typically face students who have little to no experience with that field of study. In this setting, teachers may take for granted all that they know and are able to do. In a sense, they expect students to “get inside their head.” One of the joys of teaching is finding ways to take complex topics and present them in such a way that students begin their own journey of discovery.

Generally speaking, students learn through explanation, example, and experience (Maxwell, 1978). Unfortunately, teachers sometimes rely too much on explaining the knowledge, lingo, and methodologies of their discipline, all of which can sound like a foreign language to their students. Consequently, teachers may spend less time teaching with examples and encouraging experiential learning within their discipline, which is where the real learning often takes place. Examples and illustrations are powerful ways to broaden and deepen student learning. One of the challenges facing teachers is selecting the most effective examples and knowing when and how to best use them.

Even if you find perfect examples, insert them ideally, and share them masterfully, it is still possible for your students to completely miss the point. It would be like asking students to go to the supermarket with a long list of items to buy, without giving them a shopping cart. They can take items off the shelf, but their capacity to retain them is greatly limited because they do not have anywhere to keep them.

To illustrate this point, Dr. Kim B. Clark, former dean of the Harvard Business School, recently shared a story that has important implications for teachers, (Clark, 2019). An elementary teacher assembled a class of fourth graders and taught them a lesson about Martin Luther, the German theologian. At the end of his lesson, he gave them a short quiz to see what they had learned. Every student answered every question incorrectly. They answered all of his questions based on their knowledge of Martin Luther King, Jr., the famous American civil rights leader.

The teacher then assembled a second group of fourth graders. This time, the teacher began his presentation with a question: “How many of you know who Martin Luther King, Jr. was?” All of the students raised their hands. Now that he had their attention, he asked, “Do any of you know why his parents gave him the name of Martin Luther?” None of them knew. He had their full attention, and they were ready to learn. He then shared the same information he had presented to the first group, but the students heard his lesson differently because it built on information they already understood. At the conclusion of this lesson, all of the students answered the questions correctly.

The first group hadn’t learned anything about Martin Luther, even though the teacher had shared many details about his life and experiences. Why is that? It’s because the students had no context or framework to connect the information they were hearing with what they already knew. They were not ready to receive and contextualize the teacher’s new information.

Dr. Clark concluded this anecdote with the following observation: “There is great power in connecting the principle to [students’] own experience and to what they already know and understand.” He further noted that drawing upon students’ personal experiences can help unlock their understanding and  increase the likelihood they will remember and integrate the new information they have received—all of which leads them to higher levels of understanding.

Sharing our own relevant personal experiences (which, admittedly, may be uncomfortable for some teachers) can often be a catalyst for encouraging students to view their own experiences in terms of the topic at hand. This practice has a tendency to make our teaching more relevant, more relatable, and more understandable to the students. This can be especially true when teaching the most complex or difficult parts of your course. At those points, reach for more examples.

Don’t assume that effective integration of personal examples and experiences will just happen in the moment. This can, and should, be an intentional part of our preparation. While preparing and teaching, it is important to keep our focus on the big picture. When it comes to incorporating examples into our teaching, we should frequently ask ourselves questions associated with what, how, and when, such as:

  • What examples and illustrations would help students better understand?
  • How should those examples or illustrations be delivered?
  • When could those examples and illustrations be used most effectively?

Integrating meaningful learning examples into our courses should take place at all levels of our teaching. When using examples or experiences to help students better understand individual concepts, teachers should not assume students can fully answer the unstated questions, “So what?” or “Why should I care?” Our job, when you boil it down to the essentials, is to help them answer those questions.

The old adage says that a picture is worth a thousand words. We would suggest that a properly chosen example or experience is worth more than that. To get started, consider one aspect of your course where students consistently struggle and then search for and integrate an appropriate example or experience into your teaching.

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Neal A. Maxwell, Liahona, February 1978.

Kim B. Clark, “Apply Your Hearts to Understanding,” Broadcast to Educators, 8 February 2019, Salt Lake City, Utah.