Key features of the strategy
On the surface, this activity might seem simple. However, it actually requires a higher level thinking, and consequently, scaffolding on the part of the instructor to help students to be successful. When we ask students to compare and contrast two concepts, they must first be able to identify the salient features of each individually. Depending on the complexity of the concept, this may require some prompts or scaffolds for them to consider. For example, if students are to compare and contrast the contributions of two political leaders, you may wish to narrow the focus to some key features. It can also be helpful to either provide or encourage students to develop a chart, table or Venn diagram to assist them in their analysis. The examples below provide strategies and resources that you may find helpful.
Examples and Variations
Unpacking Compare/Contrast Essays
A common paper that many faculty assign is the classic compare/contrast essay. The Writing Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill offers a robust resource for students writing compare/contrast essays. It helps students not only with practical suggestions for formatting and structuring their essays, but also with strategies to help them determine what to focus on, develop a thesis, and implement one of two organizational schemes. In addition to helping students, this resource can also be valuable for faculty in devising these kinds of experiences for their students.
Walter Parker from the University of Washington has developed an approach called concept formation that provides a systematic framework to help students construct their own understanding of a concept. To prepare for a concept formation activity, the faculty member must first clearly define and identify the critical characteristics of the concept. They then assemble a collection of examples that have all of the critical characteristics of the concept as well as a collection of non-examples – those that have some, but not all key features. Finally, the faculty member should then create a data organization chart that guides student work. From the student perspective, they work through an interactive process of “uncovering” the definition and characteristics of the concept through an analysis of the examples and non-examples. This inductive approach is an engaging and sophisticated approach to understanding a concept.
Developing a Classification Scheme
An advanced form of a compare/contrast activity is offered by the University of Waikato in New Zealand that challenges students to develop their own classification scheme for a collection of organisms. In the suggested process, students are challenged to develop their own classification scheme in whatever way makes sense to them. They must, however, name each category, identify the criteria that they used to create their scheme, and defend their process to the class. This process could be modified to work in different disciplines and would help students to develop the critical thinking skills to analyze key features and characteristics.
Connections to 21st Century Skills and Technologies
When students engage in compare/contrast activities, they develop critical 21st century learning skills in the construction of knowledge. By focusing on critical features and characteristics of course concepts, they develop analytical skills and a deeper engagement with the content that is characteristic of knowledge construction activities. Both collaboration and skilled communication skills can be integrated with these activities as well.
Mind maps are graphic representations of how ideas or concepts connect or relate. I addressed this topic briefly in an earlier post on student note taking. One powerful mind mapping tool is Mindmeister. With Mindmeister, students can develop a range of visual representations of concepts that can illustrate connections, differences, and key features of course concepts. These representations can be developed and expanded over time and in collaborative fashion. Also, simple charts and tables developed using word processing applications can also be helpful for organizing ideas in a more linear format.
How do you structure compare/contrast experiences in your courses?
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