Integrate examples and experiences in teaching to enhance learning

One of the thrills of teaching is witnessing the magical ‘aha’ moment in learners after presenting a complex topic in a way that enabled them to make their own journey of discovery. Every teacher, like any seasoned cook, has a secret ingredient to this (‘aha’ moment). Mine is teaching with examples and encouraging experiential learning.

While a thorough explanation of knowledge, lingo, and explicit methodologies are fundamental when it comes to teaching, leveraging examples is what leads to real learning. Examples and illustrations are powerful ways to broaden and deepen student learning. I once got really frustrated when after labouring for a full week on the idea of paragraphing, my students still wrote one sentence paragraphs. As long as they had a long sentence that stated the topic, explained, illustrated and clinched the paragraph, it was perfect and they could not understand why I was insisting on having a group of sentences.

Decidedly, I began to debrief on paragraphs with a query: “How many of you have been to a forest?” To my satisfaction, most of them had. I followed this up with other questions that led them to the discovery that a forest is only one when there is a group of trees and that even if we had one tree with different fruits like mangoes, oranges and apples, it would not make a forest. It was then easy for my learners to draw inferences, a forest being a group of trees and a paragraph being a group of sentences. Using the forest analogy, I was able to employ what they already know to deepen their understanding.

The challenge with examples, however, is selecting the most effective ones 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. The secret is to connect it to the students’ personal experiences—this will unlock their understanding and increase the likelihood of remembering and integrating the new information they have received—all of which leads them to higher levels of understanding. Similarly, sharing our own relevant personal experiences (which, admittedly, may be uncomfortable for some teachers) can also make our teaching more relevant, more relatable, and more understandable to the students.

This calls for adequate preparation. It would be imprudent to assume that this just happens naturally and within a moment. 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 and when could those examples and illustrations be used most effectively? This doesn’t have to be done for every lesson; it is something you can apply, especially on those topics that students struggle with.

The old adage “a picture is worth a thousand words” is undebatable, but a properly chosen example or experience is worth more than that. Consider one aspect of your course where students consistently struggle and then search for and integrate an appropriate example or experience into your teaching