The value of storytelling in learning
Learning has a lot to do with storytelling: instructors tell students stories to pique their interest, to ground theory in specifics, and to create a reference point for new ideas; students tell stories to integrate new ideas and to make sense of their experiences.
Stories are a powerful way of communicating ideas; they signpost our experiences, make sense of what we know, and create continuity. We learn by both hearing and telling stories and practicing through stories. Here is how:
Hearing a story. Telling students a story places ideas in a broader context, providing a richer understanding and creating a durable memory - we remember in context, and we forget isolated facts. When instructors tell stories, they create a link between theory (what they would like students to know) and application (how theory plays out) in a memorable way.
Telling a story. The work of connecting concepts and integrating what we know with new ideas is a crucial part of learning. To truly understand a subject, students must work to understand key ideas, begin to develop a system of relationships among those ideas, and then develop the ability to explain both discrete ideas and how those ideas are connected. To develop a deeper understanding of a specific subject, students need to trace their learning journey and ask - What do I know? How do these ideas fit together? How has my understanding changed? And can I explain what I know to someone else?
Being part of a story. Experience is crucial to learning; simulations place students in fictional narratives that are personally meaningful. Our simulations involve students in stories that are both familiar (running a startup) and entirely unfamiliar (competing to save the earth), giving students practice and connecting that practice with the underlying concepts. Being part of a story drives engagement – students want to see where it’s all going – and learning; students are eager to play and eager to make sense of their experience after the simulation.
Why ask students to live through, write, and share stories?
Learning is personal. Students bring their emotional and social selves to school. When they share stories about how and why they understand ideas, they are sharing part of themselves with their peers and integrating their past and present experiences, a learning strategy that can create long-term memories.
We remember stories, not isolated facts. Learning facts devoid of context taxes working memory and without context what we learn soon fades. But learning through a story contextualizes events and creates emotional resonance; we remember what happened to us and these memories inform our thinking.
Living through a simulated experience makes learning objectives tangible. Living through an experience allows students to delve into how and why something happens and prompts them to understand their actions and their decisions.
In a strategic management simulation, students play the role of top-level managers of a small company facing a crisis when they find out that a major competitor is about to enter their industry. Suddenly, the press is calling to ask them what they plan to do to address this new challenge, even as their investors are getting skittish and demanding explanations. Fictional subordinates chime in with their own suggestions over email, and various factions within the company start to argue different approaches. Students have to make choices to resolve the situation, receiving feedback that links their game choices to learning objectives.
How do you get students to participate in storytelling? By carefully designing learning experiences and challenges that draw on the science of learning. Our platforms and simulations apply a variety of storytelling principles:
- We use stories as vehicles for learning. By building story-based experiences we push students to make decisions that build on one another, for themselves and their teams. Our experiences give students the power to create their own stories and then live through the consequences of their actions in the story. And since every player action within the simulation is saved and analyzed, an interactive instructor debrief can broaden and enrich the student’s personal story - players hear from other teams and connect practice (what happened in the game) with theory (the underlying learning objectives of the game).
- We give students agency over their learning and a sense of accomplishment as they progress through increasingly difficult challenges. Giving students agency over their learning is motivating. Students make decisions as they progress through a simulation; each decision point is based on the last creating a series of personalized challenges that are difficult but achievable. As students play, they stack up accomplishments; accomplishments drive student engagement; and student engagement increases accomplishments – creating a virtuous learning cycle.
Murray, M. (2003). Narrative psychology. Qualitative psychology: A practical guide to research methods, 111-131.
Koh, A. W. L., Lee, S. C., & Lim, S. W. H. (2018). The learning benefits of teaching: A retrieval practice hypothesis. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 32(3), 401-410.
Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick. Harvard University Press.