Tag: story-based learning

Objections to Stories for Learning

“Not everyone can be a storyteller.”

“Stories are a waste of learners’ time.”

“Stories don’t work for all kinds of training.”

Have you heard any of these objections? Maybe you’ve even raised some of these objections yourself. Here’s how I would respond to each of these objections.

Objections to Stories for Learning

“Not everyone can be a storyteller.”

Imagine you’re on the phone with someone explaining a bad day and everything went wrong. What happened first that made it a bad day? What happened next? What did you do about it? How did you feel? Did anything change by the end of the day?

Can you imagine yourself telling the story of a bad day? Congratulations–you’re a storyteller! We tell stories about ourselves all the time. We explain our lives in narrative form.

No one is born a storyteller. Telling stories is a skill like anything else. You can develop it with practice and training. Maybe you’ll never write the “great American novel,” but that’s not what you need for creating stories for learning. You need specific skills for creating relevant stories to meet learning goals. Stories for learning are often short, maybe even only a few sentences long.

You CAN learn to be a better storyteller. This is a skill like anything else. With practice, feedback, and the right strategies, you can improve your story writing skills.

“Stories are a waste of learners’ time.”

In a LinkedIn group discussion, someone (we’ll call him “T”) argued, “Learners aren’t there to be entertained. They have a very low tolerance for time-wasting content. If you include games or stories, use them sparingly, and don’t patronize your learner.”

First, I think it’s arguable whether or not learners want to be entertained. However, I think it’s fair to say that learners primarily want to accomplish a goal or solve a problem. We should use stories when they help us meet our objectives. If a story doesn’t support the objectives (or distracts from the objectives), we shouldn’t use it.

Stories can be a waste of learners’ time. “T” shared an example of content with a pirate theme that had nothing to do with the course content. Learners had to click 12 times to get through the intro story before they got to any substance. I agree with “T” on this example; that’s a waste of time. It’s a flashy wrapper around content. It doesn’t add context or relevance.

If you’re going to use stories, focus on how they can help you meet your learning objectives. That might mean using stories as examples or mini-scenarios for assessment. You have a range of options for storytelling available; pick the kind of story that best meets your objectives. Make your stories relevant, not just flashy distractions.

“Stories don’t work for all kinds of training.”

Stories aren’t always appropriate or necessary, but they can work in most kinds of training. For example, software training can use stories for motivation, to show why certain features are used, or to model the thought process of using the program.

For compliance training, every regulation, rule, or policy has a reason behind it. (It may not be a great reason, but set that aside for now.) Chances are, the rule exists because someone broke it. What are the consequences? Why does it matter if people follow the rule?

In compliance training, you can use stories to show people the consequences of violating policies rather than just telling them. You could start by showing a disaster or accident to hook learners in the story. After the intro, go back in time. Show the sequence of events and decisions that led to things getting so bad.

A fantastic example of this is The Lab from the Office of Research Integrity (Flash required). Ethics in research is a topic that could be dry and boring, but this brings it to life and shows the real long-term consequences of decisions. The very first words in the video are “It was a bad day.” You see a reporter questioning someone about questionable lab results. In this branching scenario, you have an opportunity to go back in time to undo the mistakes and avoid the public scandal. Even if you don’t have the budget for something at this level, you can use this worst case scenario strategy.

You can also set up a scenario where learners have to make a decision following the policy. Use the story to give them motivation to look up the relevant rules.

Other Objections?

What other objections do you hear or have to using stories to support learning? How do you respond to objections? Tell me in the comments.

Image: Graphic Stock

What Challenges Do Your Characters Face?

Once upon a time, there was an instructional designer who created a branching scenario for training. Her client was excited about the approach, her SME was always available and helpful, and her technology worked perfectly the first time, every time. The learners loved it, and the instructional designer won an award. Everyone lived happily ever after. The End.

Sounds like a great fantasy, right? But how engaged were you with that story? Was it realistic? Could you identify with the character and her situation? Do you care what happens to her?

Honestly, that story makes me want to yawn. It’s just boring.

Ladder leaning against brick wallStories and scenarios for learning are more engaging when they show the characters facing challenges. Think about any great movie or novel. The main character always faces obstacles. Harry Potter faces Voldemort , as well as the Dursleys, school, and other challenges. How he overcomes those challenges is what makes those stories compelling.

When we use stories for learning, the challenges should mimic the kinds of issues learners will face in their real workplace. You don’t need an evil villain in your story, but you do need obstacles to overcome. Take the example of creating a branching scenario. You might hit a number of obstacles as an ID.

  • A client or manager who wants a traditional linear course rather than a branching scenario.
  • A SME who insists on a content-heavy course, isn’t available, or struggles to provide scenario examples
  • Technology that’s clunky or doesn’t work well for scenarios
  • Limited budget
  • Short timelines
  • Writer’s block or trouble coming up with realistic scenarios

Which Challenges?

You might start by brainstorming challenges like the list above. You probably won’t include all the potential challenges in a single scenario since that would be too complex. Therefore, you’ll need to pick and choose the challenges that make the most sense.

  • Frequent Obstacles: What obstacles or challenges happen most often? What problems are your learners most likely to face?
  • Common Mistakes: What are the common mistakes people make? What are the typical misunderstandings?
  • Critical Challenges: Are there challenges that happen less frequently but create serious consequences if they occur? For example, a hazmat spill may be uncommon, but there may be significant, even deadly, consequences for not following the proper response procedure. If a mistake or problem could put lives or safety at risk, include it in the scenario.

Select your challenges to meet the requirements above. During the analysis phase, I often ask SMEs what mistakes or misunderstandings are common. Ask your SMEs follow-up questions about the consequences of those mistakes. Those challenges become decision points in your course; the consequences become the intrinsic feedback showing learners the effects of their choices.

If you create scenarios for learning, what issues do you face creating challenges? Leave a comment and tell me about your experiences. If you’re having trouble, we can try to work through the problem together.

Story-Based Coaching and Mentoring Course

One technique for creating a more story-based course is using two characters who explain the content via a conversation. I usually use one character who acts as a coach and one character who is similar to the audience–same job role, same level of experience. In this example, the audience is new managers who don’t have much experience with coaching and mentoring. I wrote this course as part of Cine Learning Productions Custom Leadership Training (CLT) program.

I set up the story with a short video at the beginning of the course. This introduces the characters and shows the challenge the protagonist, new manager Michael, faces while coaching one of his employees. I wanted a scenario that showed a clear problem that could be solved through better coaching. If I create a good story at the beginning, I know I can “hook” the learners. I want them to think, “Oh! I’ve felt this same way. I’ve got the same problem as Michael.”

Michael is having one of those days. After finishing yet another coaching session with April, she still doesn’t grasp the basics of client relations. At his wits end, he goes to his manager, Pamela, who helps him discover a better way to coach through a session of their own.

After the introduction video, the rest of the course was built in Storyline with photos and voice over by the actors in the video. Learners listen in during Michael’s coaching session with Pamela.

Pamela and Michael discussing coaching

A traditional e-learning course probably would have used a single narrator reading a bullet point list like this:

Here are the reasons coaching and mentoring are important in our organization:

  • Employees are more likely to stay if they are supported by managers.
  • Developing employee skills reduces employee turnover.
  • It helps build our talent pool.
  • Building employee skills lets us promote from within.

In this course, the same content is delivered in a conversational style, as if the two characters were having a coaching session. This does increase the overall word count, but I think it’s more engaging than reading a list. Even with a really good voice over person, it’s tiring to listen to the same voice for long stretches; this method breaks it up so you always alternate between the voices.

Pamela: Michael, as you know, our organization really values good coaching and mentoring. Why do you think we view it as so important?

Michael: Well, it probably helps keep people here in the organization. People are more likely to stay if they’re supported by their managers and developing new skills.

Pamela: You’re right. It also helps build our pool of talent. We want to promote from within, and that means we need to develop our people so they’re ready to move up.

Michael: Right. I wasn’t ready for a management position when I started here, but I’ve developed new skills since then. At least, I thought I had…

In the eLearning Guild’s research report Using Stories for Learning: Answers to Five Key Questions, Karl Kapp describes a study which found that people remembered more from a brochure when information was presented in a narrative format rather than a bullet point list. Using stories for learning helps us make sense of the content.

The activities in the course either ask learners to reflect on their personal skills or respond to scenarios. This activity provides a scenario and asks learners to follow guidelines for providing feedback.

Coaching feedback activity

In the final activity for the course, everything is tied back to the beginning. Learners create a plan for coaching April in the scenario from the introductory video; they create a solution for the problem at the beginning of the course.

Scenario for the Coaching and Mentoring Plan Activity

The customer response to this course has been positive. Len Carter, V.P. of H.R. for FHN said, “Truly, these were the best online products for leadership development we’ve ever purchased. We’ll be purchasing more in 2014!”

Have you created this style of story-based course? Do you see opportunities where you could use it in the future?