How to explain complex ideas in a simple way

Explaining complex ideasAs teachers and authors, we are often faced with the challenging task of conveying information that, although second nature to us, is completely foreign to the students learning the material. Several experienced textbook authors share their best practices for explaining complex ideas in a simple way, including the use of metaphors, visuals, procedures/processes, and hands-on multisensory activities to improve learning success.

Julie Lobur, author of The Essentials of Computer Organization Architecture, (Jones & Bartlett Learning):

“Metaphors are my favorite device for explaining complex ideas. They are particularly effective when they can be expressed visually. For example, in our text, The Essentials of Computer Organization Architecture, we employ the idea of shipping foodstuffs to illuminate the concepts of network packet switching protocols. It goes like this: A food manufacturer’s salesperson makes a sale. Has no idea how the goods will get to the customer. That’s the job of the company’s shipping department. The customer isn’t concerned with how many boxes are required for shipment or which road the truck takes. He cares only that all of the products arrive timely and in good condition. If you have understood this, you have just mastered the fundamental idea of packet-switched network protocols. This metaphor carries well into the details of the process (which I will spare you).

The best part of visual metaphors is that they can often be illustrated. Don’t be afraid to pull out your pencil and make a sketch. (Your publisher will clean it up.) With this medium, you have the liberty of making your metaphor humorous or even a bit silly as a supplement to a prosy depiction in the body text.

That being said, one does need to guard against carrying a metaphor too far—to the extent that it doesn’t fit well into the point being made or that the reader gets so lost in the metaphor that she misses the point entirely. If you find yourself asking, ‘Have I taken this one too far?’ the answer is most likely, ’Yes, you have.’

Metaphors challenge the nonfiction writer to be truly creative. They breathe life into material that can be dreadfully dry. Effective metaphor use can make our work so engaging that the reader can comprehend it with minimal effort. This is always our highest aim.”

Marilyn T. Fordney, author of Insurance Handbook for the Medical Office, (Elsevier):

“In answer to your question, the topic of insurance billing and coding is a highly technical and fast-changing world and was one of my main topics to write about. I wrote with simplicity, conciseness, and in lay language–the three keys to success.

In addition, I developed easy-to-understand visuals (figures) for all of my textbooks. These were sent to the Art Department to produce in a professional manner. To illustrate what the reader is seeing in the figures, I used numbered arrows with labeling. This makes it easy and quick for the reader to identify what they are looking at.

Short concise sentences are vital. Because of the complexity of insurance billing and coding for each edition, I wrote a companion workbook with assignments, so the student performs the task as he or she would in an actual medical office setting. This hands-on approach is successful in producing a student that can function on the job which is the final goal for success.”

Lorraine Papazian-Boyce, author of Pearson’s Comprehensive Medical Coding: Path to Success (Pearson):

“Authors/instructors need a good grasp of the complex topic themselves. Often, we get so used to repeating standard explanations, that when we stop and really look at it, there might be a few details we don’t fully understand ourselves. Anytime I find myself thinking ‘This is complicated, and it just takes time to understand it’, it’s a signal to myself that I have not adequately explained it. I do any research needed to make sure I understand every word and every concept in the traditional explanation.

We also need a certain measure of ‘creative thinking’ to identify new ways to present traditional information. Some of the techniques I use include:

  • Create checklists students can follow while performing a task (whether it’s solving a math problem or performing a medical procedure)
  • Create tables to break down, compare, and summarize information
  • Create figures that identify details students need and do not appear in ‘typical’ figures for the subject matter
  • Write out step by step procedures/processes
  • Create videos of procedures/processes
  • Create worksheets that students can complete as they perform a task or process
  • Use analogies from everyday life.
  • Use few words, short sentences, and lots of subheadings and bullet lists”

Jenia Walter, author of Building Writing Skills the Hands-on Way (Cengage Learning):

“One major strategy I use to explain complex ideas in a simple way is involving students in hands-on, multisensory activities that demonstrate the concepts. Most of the college English students I work with are at the ‘developmental’ level, which means they are still working on developing college-level academic skills. Many of these students struggle to learn academic reading and writing concepts through reading/writing mode, which may have been a difficult learning style for them in past educational environments for a variety of reasons. I’ve found that when I take a concept out of the two-dimensional print mode and draw on students’ well-developed multiple intelligences to make sense of it, they gain ownership of the ideas in a very different way. Then, with a scaffolded process of moving from hands-on activities to the students’ own writing, they can transfer the concept to print mode with more confidence and a greater comfort level.

I’ve found this process works with just about every topic of instruction. To develop reading strategies, we might do a group ‘pre-reading’ of the organizational structure of a textbook chapter kinesthetically, with readers of the major headings standing on chairs or desks, demonstrating the hierarchical levels of sub-heads and other text features through physical positions and motions. To work on developing a thesis, I use an activity called ‘Mystery Thesis Revealed,’ in which students (re)create the thesis statement for a sample essay after reading only its body paragraphs and conclusion. As current research on brain-based learning theory confirms, the brain needs to create to really learn, and this simple thesis-creation process allows students to approach their own thesis statements with a deeper, more holistic understanding.

The activity that provides the most dramatic example of complex concepts made simple is ‘Riddle in the Middle’ (from a game originally created by an advanced grammar student to work with who vs. whom), which helps students to understand relative clause structure and punctuation, among the most challenging concepts in grammar (Please see pages 251-254 of the textbook for details and activity photos). Students stand together holding sentence strips with the subject and predicate of an underlying simple sentence, and then ‘step aside’ as another student steps forward between them holding a relative clause to create a complex sentence. Other students read the sentence aloud and add comma cards when needed to demonstrate nonrestrictive/restrictive punctuation patterns. These complex concepts make clear sense with this multisensory approach, and students look at me as if to say, ‘What’s the big deal?’ when I express to them how students usually struggle with the ideas.

This hands-on approach can be used effectively in most disciplines. At a conference I once saw a physics professor, whom I was never able to track down later, describe how he had students act out concepts kinesthetically. For example, to understand an idea related to the expansion of molecules, a group of students clustered together in a tight group and then burst into motion, running outward in all directions. Students are able to retain, recall, and apply concepts more effectively when information enters the brain along multiple pathways. Activities using movement to learn stimulate energy and send more oxygen to the brain, as well as engaging students through memorable social learning, novelty, and laughter.”

Walter shared the above presentation titled, “Parts of a whole: Hands-on approaches to reading, writing, & student success,” containing additional examples of her approach to explaining complex ideas in a simple way.


Eric SchmiederEric Schmieder is the Membership Marketing Manager for TAA. He has taught computer technology concepts to curriculum, continuing education, and corporate training students since 2001. A lifelong learner, teacher, and textbook author, Eric seeks to use technology in ways that improve results in his daily processes and in the lives of those he serves. His latest textbook, Web, Database, and Programming: A foundational approach to data-driven application development using HTML, CSS, JavaScript, jQuery, MySQL, and PHP, First Edition, is available now through Sentia Publishing.

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