Incorporating elements of storytelling into teaching and training provides a narrative thread as well as emotional anchoring for the learner, both key to retaining important knowledge. As an instructional designer, I try to include elements of storytelling in my projects to engage the learner: a cast of characters, real-life scenarios, and simulations of complex systems.
Meeting characters — people like us! — involves us at a personal level. We’d much rather help Adam or Isabel than some anonymous individual. We want to connect emotionally with other people, people we know. We can even feel more empathy for a fictional character than an unnamed person with the same characteristics. This matters because we care what happens to other people, and that emotional anchoring helps learning retention.
For a USAA project, we came up with several key characters, from Rear Admiral Hector Galvan to Baby Boomer Eddie Muñoz to Paula Bonds, young college graduate looking for work. Each character moves through life changes causing the learner to learn new procedures to help Hector, Eddie and Paula. Learners demonstrated greater engagement when named characters were incorporated into the lessons.
Scenarios expand upon characters in that we now see people described in specific situations, generally requiring some response from the learner. By showing situations similar to those they will possibly encounter, this fidelity to reality improves transfer of the learning involved. The greater the fidelity, the greater the realism, the more likely the learned behavior will be replicated when the learner encounters this situation in real life.
For a global Dell ethics training course, we created short branching scenarios that offered the learner choices, subtly guiding them towards the desired behaviors. Each scenario offered 3 options — bad, better and best. All choices received feedback, but bad choices ended the scenario. For both “better” and “best,” another set of choices were offered. Although unscored, this section eventually replaced the rest of the course.
Simulations provide an even more immersive experience, and push the learner deeper into a virtual world designed to echo their own. Choices produce results, with outcomes informing the learner via experience. Again, this provides a fidelity to reality that greatly facilitates learning. The impact of a carefully planned and well-executed simulation can be immense.
PH Congress, part of the Interactive Constitution project, provided students the chance to pass a law through Congress. The “Desktop of the Future” interface provided access to information including emails, vid-mails, news accounts, polling information, and background materials and presented the student with a series of challenges: choose a co-sponsor, pass the bill out of committee, and pass the bill on the floor of the House. Choices at each level impacted the likelihood of passing the bill. This immersive experience demonstrated the intricacies of the legislative process like no simple narrative could.
Of course, we increasingly see these storytelling elements incorporated into e-learning projects. Rapid e-elarning software tools such as Captivate™ and Articulate Storyline™ even provide built-in character and scenario tools, simplifying their inclusion. Future learning technology will do well to include the essential elements of storytelling, our oldest form of sharing learning.