Good Teaching: Balancing the Abstract with the Concrete

By Sandy Chapman

Ever tried to read the instructions for using a cell phone without the actual phone in hand? Ever tried to understand someone’s explanation of how something works, say, how the planets are held in orbit around the sun, or the effect of the moon’s gravitational pull on the tides, without a corresponding picture or model to illustrate? Painful, isn’t it? Students can be equally frustrated trying to assimilate information in a 50-minute lecture on a technical topic if they are missing a purpose for learning or the concrete real-world reference to the abstract concept being explored.

Felder et al. (2000) suggest seven best teaching methods for significantly upgrading the quality of engineering education. Grounded in sound educational theory, these points are relevant to all disciplines. Their article is available online at: The Future of Education II: Teaching Methods that Work.

This tip will focus on points 2 and 3 in the above article: Establish Relevance of Course Material and Teach Inductively, and Balance Concrete and Abstract Information in Every Course.

At the start, it just makes good sense to introduce a course and each new course topic by providing students with a reason or purpose for learning the course or topic information. The schema theory of learning, originated by Piaget and further developed by R.C. Anderson in 1977 and others since, acknowledges that students learn by connecting new knowledge with their own prior knowledge and real-world experiences. Learning is facilitated when students can connect new information with something they already know. Authors in the above article provide this example:

“For the next two weeks we’re going to be discussing characteristics of a fluid flowing through a pipe…In groups of three, come up with as many situations as you can that involve this subject—three people talking, one writing down the ideas. You have one minute—go!”

As students come up with examples, such as home plumbing, irrigation, municipal water and sewer flows, etc., the instructor adds them to a growing collection of examples with which to stimulate class discussion and instruction. These types of examples keep students interested, motivated and engaged in the teaching moment because these examples are connected and relevant to their life experiences. Teaching inductively like this—moving from specific examples to generalities—can be applied in many learning forms, for instance, discovery learning and problem-based learning.

Balancing the Abstract with the Concrete

Felder et al. provide a few suggestions for balancing abstract concepts with the concrete, such as the following:

Provide visual illustrations and demonstrations of course-related material as possible. Most students get a great deal more out of visual information than verbal information (written and spoken words and mathematical formulas). Show pictures, sketches, schematics, plots and flow charts, and computer simulations of process equipment and systems. Take the class to the local boiler house and point out pumps, flowmeters, boilers, heat exchangers, refrigeration units, and turbines. Bring demonstrations to class…for heat transfer and…fluid mechanics.”

Such teaching methods also align with the theories that students have different learning styles. Before students are challenged to assimilate vast amounts of theoretical content or to solve abstract formulas—whether in engineering or any discipline—they will benefit from being introduced to concrete, real-world examples.


Felder, R. M., Woods, D. R., Stice, J. E., & Rugarcia (2000). The future of education II. Teaching methods that work. Chem. Engr. Education, 34(1), 26-39. Retrieved June 15, 2007 from