Lectures with concrete examples improve students' learning

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Imagine you are sitting in Spanish class, and the teacher plays “Despacito” over the speakers. The students chatter amongst themselves. They say, “Wow, that’s a great song!” and “I wonder what it all means!”

Following the musical introduction, the teacher launches into a lesson built around the vocabulary, grammar, and cultural references in the hit song. Throughout the class, students are engaged and eager to learn, because they understand why the subject material is important and relevant to the real world. In particular, they are motivated by the desire to better appreciate Luis Fonsi’s hit single featuring Daddy Yankee the next time they listen to it.

Alternatively, imagine you are sitting in a different Spanish class, where the instructor starts by handing out a long list of vocabulary and grammatical concepts. The lesson begins by going through the vocabulary and explaining the grammar, delving into the etymological roots of words and various irregular verb conjugations.

Students are half asleep, unsure why any of this is important or worth paying attention to, longing for the end of the class period. Later in the lesson, the instructor might even play “Despacito,” and while the students are pleasantly surprised to hear the song, the class time was largely wasted because the students were not engaged enough throughout the lesson to understand the song lyrics at the end.

Most would likely agree that the first Spanish class, with concrete examples presented from the start and abstract ideas explained later, is the better way to go. Yet again and again, explanations start with abstract ideas and only at the end progress to the interesting applications of those ideas.

This mistake is made so many times, because, in the mind of the explainer, starting from abstract ideas is the most intuitive approach. In the head of a fluent Spanish speaker, the most fundamental core concepts are vocabulary and grammar, while on the outskirts of the web of knowledge are example applications of the core concepts like songs and stories. So, unfortunately, this is how topics are often taught.

But, consciously making an effort to change this could greatly improve student engagement and learning. Starting with interesting, real-world applications of a topic signals to students that the broader, more boring, abstract explanations are worth suffering through and staying engaged with because of the great opportunities of applying what you learn. Yes, students might not grasp all the inner workings of the application at first, but that is okay so long as they are motivated to continue learning.

Notice that this opinion piece began by launching straight into a concrete example, and only after appreciating the story does the reader get the abstract explanation about pedagogy. Maybe readers would never even reach this point in the article if the reverse were true and the article began with a discussion of abstract-first versus concrete-first explanations, saving the example of listening to “Despacito” in Spanish class for the end.

So next time you are teaching, TA-ing, or even just explaining something to your friend, remember to start with the interesting, concrete example and only after that delve into the fundamental ideas underlying it.

Inspiration for this opinion piece comes from the education podcast Ben, Ben, and Blue.