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Student analogies for energy

September 5, 2012

Using student-generated analogies to investigate conceptions of energy: A multidisciplinary study, R. Lancor, Int. J. Sci. Ed. (2012).

This article caught my interest because I just gave an AAPT talk about using student analogies to assess conceptual understanding. Besides some interesting results, this article also offers some ideas for thinking about how to categorize and investigate student analogies.

The Study

This article looks at the different types of analogies that students generate when thinking about energy. The study focuses students in first semester biology and chemistry classes and first and second semester physics classes (mostly science majors). Students in each class were introduced to some common pedagogical analogies (ex. the atom is like a solar system) and were given a worksheet asking them to generate their own analogy to explain the role of energy in a specific context (ecosystems, chemical reactions, mechanical systems, or circuits for each respective class). The worksheet then asked student to explicitly list the connections in their analogy and to discuss any notable differences between the source and target domains as well as the limitations of the analogy.

An iterative coding and sorting process was used to group student analogies (approximately 180 of them) into seven conceptual metaphors:

  • Energy as a substance that can be accounted for.
  • Energy as a substance that can flow.
  • Energy as a substance that can change forms.
  • Energy as a substance that can be lost.
  • Energy as a substance that can be carried.
  • Energy as an ingredient or product.
  • Energy as an interaction or process.

Student analogies often showed aspects of more than one conceptual metaphor and were assigned to a group based on what seemed to be the primary focus of the metaphor. Each analogy was also examined to see which of the following energy characteristics the analogy emphasized.

  • Energy conservation
  • Energy degradation
  • Energy transformation
  • Energy transfer
  • Energy source

Not surprisingly, the most common conceptual metaphors varied by class. (Or, by the context in which energy was being considered. From this study it is difficult to disentangle the effects of class and context except for comparing mechanics and circuits.)

By examining which energy characteristics appear in which analogies Lancor also drew some conclusions about which characteristics each metaphor supports most naturally – from the student’s perspective. Seeing which characteristics appear together in the same analogies also allows Lancor to infer which characteristics are most closely associated with each other in students’ minds.

Misc. Notes

Lancor bases her metaphor analysis on the work of Lakoff & Johnson. I’ve read a little bit of Metaphors We Live By but I wasn’t reading it thinking about analysis methodology. I’ll have to take another look. Lancor also references the L & J book Philosophy in the Flesh.

Lancor also differentiates between the theoretical frameworks of analogical reasoning (provides insight into how people learn new material) and metaphor theory (provides insight into what people understand). My impression was that Metaphors We Live By is about how we learn things, not what we understand. This is a distinction I’ll have to think and read more about.

There are several references on other studies of student-generated analogies as well as on the use of analogies and language in helping students be creative and advance their ideas. Also references for previous work which informed the worksheet given to students to help structure the analogy task. Lancor’s dissertation also involves metaphor theory.

There are two references to work by Chi et al. about ontological categories (matter, process, and mental state) and the language associated with the process category. I definitely want to take a look at these.

  • Chi et al. Learning and Instruction 4(special issue), 27-43 (1994).
  • Slotta et al. Cognition and Instruction 13(3), 373-400 (1995).


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