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Capture the king: using analogies to teach mathematics to adults.

Publication Date
  • Analogies
  • Adult Learning
  • Mathematics Education
  • Education
  • Mathematics


The vicissitudes in higher education internationally has resulted in universities changing the focus of their undergraduate degrees, increasing enrolments and broadening participation. Non-traditional students, who would have once been excluded from university studies, are now being accepted. Given the resulting social and educational diversity of these students, how do we, as educators, prepare them for undergraduate study? Central Queensland University (CQU) is well known for accepting non-traditional students and has therefore provided services and courses to ensure that these students are prepared. Preparatory mathematics courses, for students wishing to gain entry to university, follow adult learning principles and can both provide content knowledge and increase confidence [1]. Students’ confidence in their ability in mathematics is important; as confidence in their ability increases so do their grades [2]. Over half of the students entering preparatory mathematics courses at CQU expressed a fear of mathematics [1]. Given that so many students have a fear of mathematics, reducing the fear and increasing confidence is therefore a vital part of teaching mathematics. Analogies are an excellent way to teach mathematics to adults. They enable connections to be forged which increases understanding, thus increasing confidence and reducing fear. Analogies enable mathematics concepts to be conveyed in a form that students can relate to, thus, increasing their understanding and confidence. One mathematics topic that the majority of preparatory students fear is algebra, which is often due to it being perceived as more abstract and thus irrelevant to the ‘real world’. Using chess as an analogy in assisting students to understand the rearranging of an equation and especially the order in which to solve algebraic equations is extremely beneficial. Students are excited that mathematics can be viewed in a manner far removed from those tedious repetitious learning methods many learnt in school. Equation solving then becomes analogous to role playing as students metaphorically eliminate the ‘guards’ and capture the ‘king’. Many students have commented “I always hated algebra in school if only they had taught it like this”. Anecdotal evidence suggests that students better relate to course content when analogies are used to simplify the concepts and provide contextual connections. It also suggests a reduction in cognitive overload and increased engagement.

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