Solving Problems With Problems

By Kali George

Picture this: You’re in your first abnormal psychology class learning about endless psychological disorders, and possible diagnoses. Your brain is cluttered with new information and you’re not sure how you’re going to recall it for your first test. Come time for test day you’re struggling to remember examples of obsessive compulsive behaviors, but sure enough you remember a prime example that your professor had given you on the famous show, Hoarders. Without a doubt you are able to use the analogy in order to remember the original concept discussed in class.

Much like the example I just gave, analogical transfer is much the same. Analogical transfer refers to the transfer of previously acquired knowledge or solutions from one context or domain to another (1). The idea of transferring the experience is just one part of analogical problem solving. In this post, I will be focusing on using analogical transfer to help learn how to engage while studying, and better recall information.


Any type of analogical transfer is made up of two parts, the target problem, and the source problem (2). The target problem is the current issue at hand that you are trying to solve, while the source problem is what you will be pulling prior knowledge from in order to solve the target problem. Researchers have even begun to categorize types of transfer which include but aren’t limited to; positive and negative transfer, near and far transfer, and low road and high road transfer (3).

In the research there are four main cognitive components that are involved in the process of analogical transfer. Within these four components is where the differences in scenarios will show through, creating the categories that were stated above. The main components are as follows in order (1).

  1. Construct: a mental idea of the source and target problems.
  2. Recognize: potential analogous relationship.
  3. Map: the key elements between the two problems.
  4. Apply: the solution to the target problem.


One of the most famous studies of analogical problem solving used Duncker’s radiation problem. First the participants would memorize a story about a fortress. A general was in pursuit of capturing this fortress, but was thrown off after discovering the dictator had put mines on each of the paths only allowing small bodies of men to enter on each road. The general soon realized that in order to get his entire army across to defeat the dictator and capture the fortress he must deploy small groups of his men in all direction, thus overthrowing the dictator. Once participants memorized the story they are faced with a new problem. This involves a patient that has an inoperable tumor that could possibly be destroyed by a type of ray. With high enough intensity this will destroy the tumor, but kill healthy tissue. Adjusting the ray to a lower intensity will not sufficiently destroy the tumor. The target problem is to find a way to destroy the tumor without killing healthy tissue (4).

When participants were only given the target problem they had a hard time developing a plan in order to solve the problem. But, when they were given a source problem prior they were able to use it as a means of analogical transfer. If you have not figured out the target problem yet, it is much like the source problem. Exposing the tumor to lower intensity rays, coming from multiple directions was enough to save the healthy surrounding tissue.

One of the hardest parts of analogical transfer and the retrieval of information comes from the effects of surface and structural features of the analogies. Surface features are the parts that when changed, do not affect the solution procedure for a problem. In the example above this would include the tumor, fortress, army, and patient. Structural features, are those that if changed, can affect the solution procedure (5). For example, the method of low intensity, high frequency of the tumor and army. Getting too preoccupied with the surface features can diminish the overall generalization of the topic. Although they have been shown to be helpful in initial recall, the concepts are what are most important.





Study Tool #1

Too often we get distracted by all of the bells and whistles that go into our studies. When we are distracted and confused us often relate ideas in the wrong way. Instead of understanding one concept and applying it to another we tend to indulge in the surface features as quick reminders that easily bring the topic to mind but don’t always help us recall the true meaning of the problem. With this, I encourage you to explore the structural features of topics. Making this mistake is what leads us to what I am coining as the “identical twin problem.” For example fraternal twins may dress alike, and act alike (surface features), but genetically are different from one another (structure features). Whereas like the Duncker problem identical twins may dress, and act differently, the structural features are the most important. I hope you consider this “problem” the next time you are faced with understand analogical transfer.

Study Tool #2

Create a story

When studying you may find yourself in a spot that just simply doesn’t apply to you. This may be a problem in itself when you are using analogical transfer. Not to worry, let’s take a trip back to creative writing class. There were always two types of people in any writing class: the one who could free write for hours, and the one who never dove into the creative depths of their imagination. If analogies do not present themselves right away, create a story! Much like the fortress story was used to set up the radiation problem come up with your own relevant story in order to help solve your problem. Creating a problem to help solve a problem, helps with the retrieval of knowledge in later situations (5). In this case you are able to create your own cocktail of surface, and structure details that encourage you to not simply remember the term, but understand it in depth.

Other tips and tricks

  • Work in groups in order to gain new experiences, and stories. Group learning aids in the process of analogical transfer.
  • Don’t be afraid to use pictures, visual cues are just as important as verbal cues.
  • Two problems can be better than one. Using two source problems is a wise choice when solving a target problem.

Keys to analogical transfer success:

Use surface features as cues

Generalize structural features

Create a story

Get creative with your problem solving



  • 1  Chen, Z. (1995). Analogical transfer: From schematic pictures to problem solving. Memory & Cognition, 23, 255–269.
  • 2 Kubricht, J. R., Lu, H., Holyoak, K. J. (2017). Individual differences in spontaneous analogical transfer. Memory & Cognition, 45, 576-588.
  • 3 Perkins, D. N., Salomon, G. (1992). Transfer of learning. International Encyclopedia of Education, 2, 2-12.
  • 4 Gick, M. L., & Holyoak, K. J. (1980). Analogical problem solving. Cognitive Psychology, 12(3), 306–355.
  • 5 Catrambone, R. (2002). The effects of surface and structural features matches on the access of story analogs. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 28(2), 318-334.









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