Brains like to create schemas. Schemas are mental structure to help us understand how things work. They have to do with how we organize knowledge. As we take in new information, we connect it to other things we know, believe or have experienced. Those connections form a sort of structure in the brain, like filing cabinets filled with images, words, sensations and sounds. Schemas helps us learn new material because we can connect new knowledge with familiar concepts that are already stored in our filing cabinets. Providing examples along with an explanation of concepts helps strengthen learning by identifying the key attributes associated with the concept. This also helps with connecting new learning with background knowledge that students may already have. Nonexamples are the opposite of examples. Whereas examples provide an instance of similarity, nonexamples provide contrast. A nonexample may be similar to the concept but contain one or more attributes and provide concept boundaries. Students figure out what attributes are relevant to the newly learned concept and which are not (Valdés, n.d.).
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When teaching using examples and nonexamples, it is important to clearly identify which is the example and which is the nonexample, especially if you are teaching an unfamiliar or difficult concept. Depending on the teaching method, there are many practical ways to use examples and nonexamples. If explicit instruction is used, it would be the teacher who provides the examples and nonexamples. If indirect instruction is employed, the students create the examples and nonexamples. For instance, for cooperative or inquiry learning, small groups develop examples and nonexamples.
Strategies for teaching using examples and nonexamples:
- Start with providing concrete examples, then move to more abstract examples of the concepts you are trying to teach. In other words, provide simple examples that most students would likely understand or be able to connect with previous knowledge. As you build the foundation, then provide more complex, elaborate examples.
- Use examples in which the attributes vary widely. For instance, in a lesson on sexual harassment, if your examples demonstrate only a person harassing someone of the opposite sex, a student might incorrectly generalize that sexual harassment cannot occur between people of the same gender. This, of course, is not true.
- Expose learners to a wide range of examples and nonexamples and allow them to discover the concept.
- Prompt students to elaborate about the connections and differences among the examples and nonexamples.
- Provide opportunities for learners to generate their own examples and nonexamples of a concept.
- Invite students to distinguish between examples and nonexamples, reflecting on and articulating how they recognize examples of the content they are learning and how the nonexamples do not illustrate the concept.
Suggestions for teaching using examples/nonexamples:
- When teaching how to complete a project, show students ideal examples of the completed projects, explicitly identifying attributes of what makes them great. Show a variety of projects covering different topics. Conversely, when you demonstrate nonexamples, show students less-than-satisfactory projects, highlighting why these projects do not meet expectations. Or better yet, ask students to explain to you why those projects do not meet expectations.
- When teaching how to solve a mathematical/scientific problem, show examples and nonexamples of the process of problem-solving. For nonexamples, highlight issues and/or patterns you often see students struggle with when completing assignments. In other words, teach students what not to do when trying to solve complex problems.
- As part of a class discussion, provide examples and nonexamples of a particular concept you are teaching. Break students into groups and have them identify what attributes define a good example and what attributes define a nonexample and provide a rationale.
- Our brains automatically seek patterns — similar files that go into the same filing cabinet. Teaching by example and nonexample can be an effective way to learn and discover concepts. However, this strategy needs to be done with caution. Students who are neurodivergent or English-language learners or who may have limited background knowledge of the concept(s) may have more difficulty finding patterns independently. Using this teaching method might not be as effective as explicitly teaching a concept. This is another reason to identify examples and nonexamples clearly when first using this strategy, so students do not mix up the two. Once the concept has been explicitly taught and the students have a strong foundation, then encouraging them to discover examples and nonexamples of concepts can help solidify learning.
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