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New faculty NSF grant will explore how analogy can help students learn

Benjamin Jee, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology, was recently awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to collaborate with researchers in Illinois, California, and Massachusetts on the development and testing of methods to improve students’ analogical thinking and reasoning skills. The three-year, $1.1 million grant will be shared by researchers among the different universities.

“The history of science has shown analogy to be a powerful tool in scientific discovery and innovation,” Dr. Jee said. “There is abundant evidence from laboratory and classroom studies that analogical comparisons can improve students’ ability to learn science, math, and many other topics.” 

Head and shoulders portrait of Benjamin Jee

Dr. Benjamin Jee

For example, reading that sound waves are analogous to ripples in a pond can give students insight into how sound travels and how soundwaves combine. Yet not all students benefit equally from the analogies that they hear or read about in school. The first goal of the research is to discover how best to equip students with the knowledge and skills to engage productively with analogical comparisons of all sorts—in short, to become better thinkers and learners. 

Dr. Jee has been collaborating with the project’s research team for a while, including the leader of the project, Dr. Dedre Gentner of Northwestern University, a pioneer in the field of cognitive science and analogical thinking.  

“My collaborators and I have done a lot of work exploring how we can help students – elementary through high school, and even adults – to learn complex material,” he said. “A central piece of what we’ve done is to develop tools for analogical learning to help people make comparisons. Sometimes that’s comparing something new to something that they already understand fairly well, but we’re also thinking about visual materials and how those could be designed to help people pull out the meaningful information to better understand complex concepts.”

Overall, the project aims to provide new insights into analogical reasoning and learning as a fundamental ability and into how it can be trained.

“The long-term goal is to develop a program, a set of lessons and activities, that could help school children, teachers, and other people make better use of analogies and understand them,” Dr. Jee said. “The end product could be an effective training program that could be used in schools. Teachers could deploy some of these analogy lessons or activities to warm students up and get them thinking critically about analogies, so that when they are confronted with them in their texts and in lessons, they will be thinking about them in a productive way.”

The new grant also creates opportunities for Worcester State students to do high-level research with scientists who are internationally respected in the field of cognitive psychology. WSU students interested in getting involved in the project are welcome to contact Dr. Jee at bjee@worcester.edu.