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Learning by Telling Stories

Learning by Telling Stories

Deepon Mitra | May 7, 2019

Once upon a time, before anesthesia was discovered, a doctor’s prowess was based on how fast he could do an amputation, not his ability to diagnose or cure. Doctors back then resorted to various methods to relieve the patient’s suffering. These included, but were not limited to, distracting them, getting them drunk like a fish, and even knocking them out with a punch. All this changed due to the efforts of one dentist from Connecticut (US), Horace Wells. In 1844, there were many substances going around as “party drugs.” One of them was Nitrous Oxide, commonly known as “laughing gas.” Once, Horace and his wife were attending a stage show called A Grand Exhibition of the Effects Produced by Inhaling Nitrous Oxide, Exhilarating, or Laughing Gas. During this demonstration, a local apothecary shop clerk became intoxicated by the laughing gas. Under its influence, he did not react or feel any pain when his legs struck against a wooden bench while jumping around. Horace found his eureka moment and quickly patented Nitrous Oxide as one of the most primordial aeaesthetics.[1]

Why are we telling you this anecdote? For one thing, it is highly unlikely that you will ever forget the story of who discovered anesthesia. Secondly, just think about whether you would have equally engaged with this information if we had presented it to you in bullet points.

Ever since the first cave paintings were found, passing information in the form of stories has been one of the most basic methods of how we communicate.

But Why Stories?

When it comes to andragogy, Malcolm Knowles’ “Experience Principle” and John Keller’s “ARCS Model” elucidate how adult learners can learn better by sharing experiences and mapping them to their own needs. They must see how a subject is relevant to feel motivated to learn it. Storytelling, or experience sharing, can arouse and gain learners’ attention, leading to inquiry arousal. However, a helping hand is required that can lead the learners’ reasoning on the correct path. This avoids cognitive dissonance and enhances both attention and retention.[2]

David Ausubel’s “Meaningful Learning Model” relates how crucial it is to explain concepts in the context of a narrative. This approach enables learning by integrating knowledge into the realistic context of a story, making it easier to remember and recall. It is easier to remember the gist of a story than random slides of miscellaneous facts and concepts. It has been seen that narratives written in a conversational tone (with a dash of humor) trigger emotional responses from learners, like curiosity on how something functions, take decisions to help the characters of the story, and more.[3]

Great! How do I write a Story?

It’s not really that difficult! You’ll notice that on most occasions it’s the SME’s (Subject Matter Experts) sharing their experiences – it is after all inherent human nature to share knowledge as something that happened to them or to someone they know. In this context, you must pre-emptively start thinking of plots and continue to ask probing questions about the subject to have a well-rounded narrative – nobody likes plotholes!

Here are some basic elements to keep in mind while writing a story:

  • The Where: The location or setting your story will take place

  • The Who: The characters of your story – the ones experiencing the scenario

  • The What: Every event, incident, task, or problem has a purpose, be it the workplace or everyday life. This purpose needs to be illustrated in your story to create a problem statement which you will address later.

  • The How: Explain how the purpose can be achieved correctly or incorrectly. The explanation can include choices or decisions taken by the learner (via the characters) to increase attention and empathy. It will also help them deduce and assess. As the climax, you can present how knowledge on the subject can help the character solve the problem – this can be done either by a series of events or a plot twist!

  • The Why: The ending of the story should deal with why it was important to know how to solve the problem. It also offers key takeaways and closure – and do the things in an informed way.

The next time you are sitting with the SME’s, gather their personal experiences or ask them to share incidents which were interesting or had an impact. Ask them questions like, “Can you tell me about the time…?,” “Is there a scenario where this was used?,” “Were there any challenges during…?”

But, stories in eLearning! How?

Here are a few ways in which you can incorporate stories in your eLearning:

  • Comic Strips: Comics are probably the oldest means of visual storytelling. Images help the learner quickly come up to speed with the context of a scenario. Character expressions and poses also help the learner to understand the situation better. In addition, the learner can progress at his own pace assimilating the subject.

    An example of this type of storytelling can be First Aid, which is a noir detective style comic strip (with a background score). In the story, a man has been hit by a car, and the learner must decide what to do next.

  • Interactive Stories: The learner has to interact with the story and take actions or decisions on behalf of the characters. The story progresses based on the learner’s decision. Correct or incorrect decisions will present different scenarios and provide knowledge at the same time. This helps learners vicariously experience character’s situation, learn from them, and prepare themselves for similar situations in their real lives.

    One of the most famous examples of this style is Cathy Moore’s Connect with Haji Kamal. In this story, you’re a US Army sergeant in Afghanistan. You have to help a young lieutenant overcome cultural differences and make a good impression on a Pashtun leader. It was used as part of a much larger effort in the US Army to strengthen soldiers’ cross-cultural and peacekeeping skills.

  • Interactive Videos: Say you wanted to learn about how ATMs operate. Of course, you can read fat manuals filled with hundreds of lines of text or jargon or you can experience a day in the life of an ATM maintenance guy. He will tell you how ATMs work, and you can interact with hotspots to access more information, definitions, and so on. If video brings a subject to life, then interactivity adds a whole new level of depth and clarity.

    Jumper is yet another brilliant use of this storytelling medium. It is a video that uses YouTube’s linking annotation feature to create a compelling first-person story.

  • Podcasts / Audio stories: The classic storytelling technique – listening to the storyteller. The audio entails the experiences of the storyteller, and what they learned from them. This could be an informative or a cautionary tale. When recording such audio courses, make sure that the narrator is genuinely passionate about the subject being presented, and there is an effective use of emphasis in intonation. If there is a possibility to complement the audio with visual aids like salient points as on-screen text, diagrams, infographics, reflective questions, or images, do not hesitate to include them.

    Action Mapping and Activity Design with Cathy Moore is a very basic yet useful example of using podcasts for teaching. In this podcast, Cathy talks about action mapping, including what it is, why it’s effective, and how to apply it. She also covers the role action mapping plays in measurement and evaluation, and scenario design. A transcript has also been provided so that the listener can read along if they so choose.

Adding humor, dread, surprise, and other similar emotions also make the stories engaging. You can consider creating a long story, and break it up as the course progresses. This way, the learner will have continuity while learning new concepts on the way.

Still not convinced?

So, do you remember how anesthesia came to be? If not, let us help you understand better!

Indecomm Digital’s learning solutions have been continuously impacting the performance of more than 300+ enterprises, governments, educational institutions, and non-profit organizations across the world. You can find out more about our learning services for the digital age here.


  1. [1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horace_Wells#Career

  2. [2] http://creativeagni.com/ezine/2015/04/cognitive-dissonance-arcs-keller-learner-motivation-

  3. [3] http://artofteachingscience.org/mos/2.10.html

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