December 2nd, 2009

The Power of Examples


I’m searching for something in an old issue of The Teaching Professor, wishing along the way that we’d done a better job of indexing content in the newsletter but rediscovering all sorts of good things that I’ve forgotten. Case in point: here’s a great quote about examples.

“Examples are instructional workhorses: they carry a great deal of the burden of teaching and learning. They help us dig into ideas and plow the land of the abstract. They help us transport information and ideas from one person to another and from one context to another. One way to improve teaching and learning is to improve the examples we use so that they more effectively communicate difficult concepts.”

Something I’ve noticed about examples: often the best ones are not the ones conceived during the preparation process. More often they are born of the moment. Students are struggling to understand, and I am working to explain. Someone asks a question, maybe with an example in it or phrased so that it makes me think of an example that answers the question and aids the understanding.

Something else I’ve noticed: I don’t always preserve those good examples that arise out of the moment. They tend to be transitory even though the aspects of content that students find difficult to understand tend to be the same. Good examples can be reused and with a bit more time for studied reflection can even be improved.

I still have the book in which this comment about examples appears. Much of the chapter explores how to sequence a series of examples so that they lead to understanding of a difficult concept. I must admit, that’s not something I do or about which I’ve thought much at all. Amazing, isn’t it, how there’s always some aspect of teaching that just might merit improvement.

Here’s the reference for the quote: Deyck, B. N. “Using Examples to Teaching Concepts” in Halpern, D. F. and Associates, Changing College Classrooms. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1994. You’ll find the quote on page 40.