strict female teacher with book pointing at scribbled blackboard

Learning: Should you give a concrete example or an abstract one?

Colin ChambersEducation, Learning, Strategy, training Leave a Comment

I was just thinking about something I recently read and thought. Damn it I should put this on my blog so I’ve got a record, so here I am.

So what was it I was thinking. Well as usual with me it’s a long story so I’ll try and break it down into something short 🙂 if you’ve read any of my other posts you’ll probably already be laughing.

So anyway here goes. The topic here is learning. I read the BBC focus magazine, can’t recommend it highly enough if you’re into the science behind life in a readable form, and I saw a little snippet in there that said a study had found that people were better at applying abstract concepts if they had been taught these concepts in an abstract way rather than using a real life example. The study focused on maths concepts and it’s a fascinatin way of looking at things.

That’s what i was thinking about briefly and since I read that every now and then I’ve been wondering how true it is. Not to say it’s not true at all, but that maybe putting it that way is a mis understanding of the way most of us learn. I’ve taught myself and lots of others many things and I feel both ways work, abstract and real life, it just depends on the person and their experience or ay of working.

Just now though I realised that a similar concept was taught to me many years ago during my A level PE. It was in the Psychology aspect when we were looking at methods of teaching. They termed it distributed practice and blocked practice and also I think a couple of other terms like varied practice and specific practice.

The first two would focus on how long you spend on specific skills. Blocked practice was spending a specific chunk of time on one skill e.g serving for 15 minutes. Distributed practice was mixing in a few different skills like serving, then volleying, then hitting a smash all in one. The time taken would be say 45 minutes (3 x15 minutes) and match the time given for blocked practice.

The last two focus on what is learnt during each period. Varied means say two or three skills are worked on during a session, specific means just one is focused on.

This is all a bit high faluting I find (don’t know if I spelt that right) because in real life I just find it’s best to think about what is really going to happen and what is going to be asked of the student. For example in teaching tennis I like to get people serving in their first or second session (I’m talking the simplest dolly serve you can think of) because who ever heard of playing a round of tennis with out serving. So The serve is the single most important shot there is because it starts every rally in every game. Therefore while it’s an advanced skill when done wel. I like start people early on to help their motor pathways get up to speed. Anyway that’s a bit of track.

What I learnt from my A level was that you could mix the concepts laid out above in anyway you like but they had found that specific blocked practice (spending 15 -30 minutes practicing one skill only) made you better at that specific skill when performing it in the same manner as you practiced it. That is better than some one who’s been playing short rallies designed to develop more than one skill. When you test in this specific (closed) manner you’ll find the person being taught one skill will do better. However as soon as you just throw them in a game you’ll generally find that the person who learnt in a more random (open) fashion will generally do better. The main reason I feel this happens is because sport is about doing what is necessary at that point in time. Every shot and situation will be unique, under pressure you generally follow what your training has taught you. Thus those trained in highly controlled environments aren’t used to these rapidly changing unique contexts. They’re exceptional when everything is just right but not so good when it’s a little different.

On the other hand those used to variation and uniqueness in their training are far more comfortable when the the play a normal game and the pressure is on because this is very much what they’ve been training for. They don’t have so many specific situations that they excel at because they haven’t spent the time on this. What they do have is breadth of knowledge and experience of what solution to apply for each challenge they face.

Now bringing it back to the study I started this post with. I would compare the blocked specific training to presenting a maths problem in a real life context, I know at first that may sound strange but what is happening is just just one example is presented for a specific amount of time, the abstract example focuses more on general expereince and unerstanding, the concept behind the example. this relates more to the varied distributed practice which focuses on the abstract concept that every situation in tennis is unique to that time and place. Some are more familiar than others but the skill to learn is what is the best solution for the particular situation.

So what do I take from this, yep I really just think about these things because I want to find an answer that fits what I know and can still explain what’s being said. Reason being it was putting me off giving specific real life examples but some thing inside me was saying “there’ll be a way to get round this , don’t you worry”. Hopefully now I’ve explained it.

But I probably really need to nail it. What I’m saying is that to get some one to understand a concept it’s perfectly fine to use a real life example. The thing is they will probably find it difficult to extrapolate this to other situations unless they’re really used to doing so. Therefore if the concept and not the example itself is key then you absolutely must use more than one real life example to teach the concept.

It also helps if the examples are sufficiently different. If I taught a concept about tennis, say footwork and how it helps you with balance then football or rugby would be better as another example than badminton or squash because the former are not racquet sports between two or four people, they are team sports with completely different rules and objectives. By doing this you really show how the same concept can applied in completely different situations. 

The student may not fully understand things at this point, some people need to mull it over themselves a little, outside of the pressure of their classroom, before they truly understand things. The point being you’ve given them enough food for thought. By having two, three or more good simple examples they have to make them all work in their heads and in doing so get to practice and therefore learn the concept fully.

Phew. There we go. I think I’m getting quicker at getting to the point. Anyway I hope that makes sense. I’ll get some comments anyway if it doesn’t

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