Story-based learning (SBL) uses narrative as the main way to present course material. And there are multiple formats this strategy can take on: video or audio production, written text, dramatic scripts, live storytelling, interactive narratives ("choose your own adventure" stories), and gamification are a few examples. Courses may present content to learners in the form of stories, or learners may tell their own narratives as a way of integrating new concepts into their lives.
According to neuroeconomist Paul Zak, a good story can trigger the release of oxytocin, a powerful chemical that facilitates learning and memory. This is great news for course developers, and even better news for eLearning designers: Zak's research has found that those stories don't even have to involve face-to-face interactions—narratives presented via video offer an equally powerful dose of oxytocin.
The benefits of story-based learning
In addition to the physiological effects, SBL has numerous other benefits:
Stories elicit an emotional response, which improves memory retention, promotes empathy, and enables learners to make new connections between ideas. (Maya Angelou's words ring especially true here: "People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.")
A good narrative captures attention more effectively than a lecture or a problem to solve. Just observe someone watching an engrossing television program sometime if you're not convinced. (And then listen to them recount the entire plot the next day, nearly verbatim, while struggling to remember what was on their grocery-store list.)
SBL introduces concepts in context, teaching the link between theory and practice. By presenting its components as an integrated part of a whole, a story has the unique ability to contextualize discrete learning objectives. For example, an interactive narrative of a dental cleaning can be more effective instruction for new hygienists than a rote checklist of steps, and it offers an investigatory perspective that facilitates on-the-job problem-solving skills.
Having learners tell their own stories can promote soft skills like self-reflection, creativity, collaboration, and problem solving. Using story-based assessments and activities in both online and in-person settings requires learners to not only examine their own experience, but articulate it for others—a process that enhances the learning process by making it reflective and experiential.
Ways to incorporate SBL into your course
- Have learners take an open-ended case study and develop an interactive narrative that highlights and explains the decisions that lead to a conclusion. This method works well online or in-person, and allows learners creative expression: the narrative could be presented as a dramatic script, a reenactment, or a video. Group work facilitates collaboration and opens students up to multiple perspectives and possibilities. (This assignment would work especially well in leadership development training.)
- Deliver customer service training via custom eLearning avatars in an online course. The avatars represent 'characters' who guide learners asynchronously through a series of interactions and decisions that branch to individualized feedback. Articulate Storyline has excellent character packs that feature customizable illustrated and photographic characters to "host" each lesson.
- Gamify a lengthy or dull course. Sometimes a repackaging of content in a narrative context can save a course that learners find a snoozefest. Familiar gaming narratives work for broad audiences. For example, lessons can become "quests" to be completed; passing quiz scores "unlock" new levels of information; and satisfactory course completion rescues a princess trapped in a tower.
The best part about story-based learning is that it can be as simple or complicated as you want it to be. Whether you decide to add interest to a course by integrating simple vignettes or produce a completely narrative-based lesson from scratch, you'll be able to see the results in your learner outcomes.
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