The power of the plural: effect of conceptual analogies on successful transfer

Acad Med. 2007 Oct;82(10 Suppl):S16-8. doi: 10.1097/ACM.0b013e3181405ad7.


Background: Transfer, using a previously learned concept to solve a new, apparently different problem, is difficult. Students who know a concept will typically only be able to access it to solve new problems 10% to 30% of the time. However, one solution is to have students work through parallel, apparently different problems.

Method: Learning materials for three cardiology-related concepts--Laplace Law, Starling Law, and Right Heart Strain--were devised. One group read a physiological explanation; two other groups read a combination of physiological and mechanical explanations, either paired up or separate. The sample was students in an undergraduate health sciences program (n = 35) who did the study for course credit. Outcomes were measured by accuracy of explanation on a test of nine clinical cases, as rated by one clinician on a seven-point scale.

Results: Groups who read two explanations did significantly better on the test, with mean scores of 3.6/5 and 4.1/5 versus 1.8/5 for the single group. Effect sizes were 1.3 and 1.7, respectively, against the single-example group.

Conclusions: Active learning with multiple examples can have large effects on a student's ability to apply concepts to solve new problems.

MeSH terms

  • Concept Formation*
  • Education, Medical, Undergraduate / methods*
  • Educational Measurement
  • Humans
  • Problem-Based Learning / methods*
  • Students, Medical*
  • Transfer, Psychology*