Jen Shang

Using Analogies to Translate Expert Thinking

Spotlight, April 2012

Jen Shang

In her Organizational Behavior and Arts Management class, Professor Jen Shang wanted students to apply a complex model to solve a real-world problem. But she soon discovered that her students had difficulty writing in the precise manner required of organizational behavior experts when they go about accomplishing similar tasks. After teaching the course for the first time, Shang concluded that for students, this writing ability is key to achieving success in her course and ultimately in their careers.  

To help students achieve the kind of expert thinking that is quite often tacit and automatic for members of the discipline, Shang changed the way she taught her class. She decided to provide her students with a grading rubric that clearly articulated the criteria needed to successfully complete the semester-long project, and she flipped the class by using “just-in-time teaching”as a way to fully engage students both during and outside of class.

She observed that even though these changes helped students get further along in the final project, they remained unable to do the type of precise writing that would indicate that they fully understood and could apply important class concepts and theories to their own work. Shang took this as evidence that students did not fully understand the model she wanted them to adopt.

What Shang had unknowingly stumbled across in her teaching has been the subject of teaching and learning research for well over a decade, and has been described in the literature using terms such as disciplinary ways of knowing, threshold concepts, theories of difficulty, and decoding the disciplines. Though these teaching theories and models may be different in scope, they share a similar focus on differentiating between expert and novice thinking.

So, in addition to the rubric, Shang decided to create an analogy to describe difficult concepts and to illustrate the processes she was asking students to complete. Then she analyzed the thinking required to complete the course project and broke it down into a series of steps that students completed over the course of the semester.

According to Shang, the final student projects now reflect both the type of thinking and writing required of organizational behavior experts, and a level of metacognitive thinking that students were not able to do in past classes.


Glenn, D. (2009). "A teaching experiment shows students how to grasp big concepts." Chronicle of Higher Education. Nov 15.

Pace, D., & Middendorf, J., eds. (2004). Decoding the disciplines: Helping students learn disciplinary ways of thinking. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 98. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Land, R., Meyer, J., & Smith, J., eds. (2007). Threshold concepts within the disciplines: Educational futures, rethinking theory and practice, 16. Sense Publishers, Rotterdam.