3 Tips to Successfully Use Story in Your eLearning Courses

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When Uri Hassan, with other researchers from Princeton University, hooked up eleven people to an fMRI machine while they listened to a story, he wasn’t sure what they would find.  The researchers’ hypothesis was a novel one—that the brain activity of a storyteller and a story listener exhibit ‘neuro-coupling,’ or mimicry.

Earlier, Hassan and his teammates had recorded the brain activity of someone telling an unrehearsed, real-life story.

“Speak as if telling the story to a friend,” they instructed.

When the story was played back to the eleven other test subjects, also hooked up to an fMRI machine, the results were telling.

The brain activity of the listeners matched that of the storyteller across all the different parts of the story.  When the storyteller felt emotional at certain sections in the story, so did the listeners (with a brief delay).  When the storyteller’s frontal cortex lit up, so did the listeners’.

Story is incredibly powerful.

Story in eLearning

That a storyteller can implant emotions and thoughts directly into a listener’s brain is indicative of just what can be accomplished with the medium.

As an instructional designer or training professional, you need to convey information to your learners and students in an effective, efficient way.

You need to get them to care.

That’s where story comes in.  What follows are three tips for successfully implementing story within your eLearning or training courses, so you can get into your learners’ brains and see the same level of success as Hassan and his team:

1. Make sure it relates to your learning objective

This is the A, Number One thing you need to keep in mind when integrating story with your online or eLearning course.

Does the addition of story actually further the learning objective?

Because as great as story is at helping people learn, there are situations where it’s not appropriate.  For instance, if your eLearning program is designed to be a performance support tool, used by techs in the field, a story explaining the diagram of a machine is likely to take too long and get skipped, or slow down the tech in their work.

The type of story is also important when considering if it furthers your learning objective.  Is an anecdote within a module more effective than wrapping the entire course in an interactive, multimedia narrative?

Think through which of the following best communicates the information you need students to learn:

  • Interactive, media-based story (like video, or audio-enhanced courses)
  • Text-based story encompassing the entire course as a holistic narrative
  • Individual, bite-sized stories or scenarios illustrating specific points or modules

Picking the right story form will also be influenced by the next important tip.

2. Use learner personas to tell the right stories

In addition to keeping your learning goals in mind, you need to account for your actual learners when designing stories for eLearning.

Different types of people react differently to a wide variety of story types and structures.  An IT trainee in a corporate environment will respond to different stories than a philosophy major in an academic environment.

While this may seem obvious, other differences are more subtle, and likely won’t come out unless you sit down and take the time to develop some distinct learner personas for your students.

A learner persona should include:

  • Habits and tasks
  • Opinions and frustrations
  • The learner’s goals
  • The learner’s current skills
  • What the learner needs right now

With this more in-depth understanding of who you’re trying to reach, you can tailor story types and plots better.

3. Have high stakes to make your story engaging

Reams and reams have been written on how to create a great story, and there are as many great ways to tell a story as there are storytellers.

But the one thing all engaging stories have in common?  That keeps you turning the pages or glued to the screen?

Stakes.

Something important must be at stake in the story for your learner to care enough to engage with it.

Storytelling organization The Moth advises you think through these questions: “What do[es] you[r character] stand to gain or lose? Why is what happens in the story important…? If you can’t answer this, then think of a different story.”

These stakes don’t have to be James Bond, world-at-risk level, but they should be important to your learners (another great example of how learner personas are essential to crafting effective stories).

From jobs being at risk (an individual’s or an everyone’s in the organization), to personal relationships, future professional success to, in some industries, actual lives, introducing important and believable stakes to an eLearning story will keep learners on the edge of their seats, and make them more likely to complete the course.

As The Moth says, “A story without stakes is an essay.”

More?

What other ways have you found to successfully integrate story into your eLearning courses?  Add your experiences in the comments!

Looking for Learning Management System software? Check out Capterra's list of the best Learning Management System software solutions.

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JP Medved

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J.P. was formerly content director at Capterra.

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