Analogical problem solving is a powerful process that involves mapping structures between problems and generalizing learned strategies from one task to another. We will summarize several studies that demonstrate the effectiveness of analogical transfer as a tool for teaching and learning in a core area of STEM education, specifically fundamental scientific processing skills: formulating hypotheses, designing valid experiments, interpreting data, and evaluating evidence. Each study focuses on how analogy functions as a learning mechanism in elementary school children’s acquisition and transfer of the domain-general principles of scientific reasoning.
When teaching scientific reasoning strategies, the basic analogy approach involves presenting, first, source examples through which children have the opportunity to acquire scientific processing strategies and, second, analogous target tasks to which children can transfer the learned strategies. The studies indicate that the analogy approach effectively helps elementary school children to learn scientific reasoning strategies. The results further suggest techniques to facilitate the acquisition and transfer of these reasoning strategies: 1) present multiple isomorphic source examples that share the same problem structure and require the same general strategy but differ in superficial features. Experiencing such diverse source tasks encourages comparison processes that boost children’s subsequent transfer; 2) ask systematic probing questions, such as those that encourage learners to generate examples of an idea or explanations of their own reasoning. Probing questions like these can help children to pay attention to important features of the source examples or to notice their own misconceptions; and 3) provide children with implicit and explicit feedback. Both implicit feedback, gleaned by children as they interact with the tasks and adapt their approaches accordingly, and explicit feedback, offered by the instructor following children’s exploration of and/or solutions to the tasks, can facilitate subsequent generalization of the strategies. The above approaches proved effective in promoting children’s analogical transfer of scientific reasoning strategies in both laboratory and classroom settings. The theoretical and educational implications for the science of learning and for classroom science education are discussed.