What makes a story effective for learning?

Jan 31, 2022 by Nomadic Team

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This is part of a series on effective cohort-based learning design. Discover more about why cohort-based learning is the latest L&D trend, explore how global companies are driving transformation through cohort-based learning, and dive deeper with our new report on the eight principles of effective cohort-based learning, honed over a decade of creating cohort experiences.

The power of storytelling in learning

Stories are special. They’re easy to understand and remember, and people find material presented in story format more interesting regardless of the topic. It’s no surprise we’ve used them to teach and learn for centuries.

Storytelling for effective cohort-based learning design

But where learning is concerned, not all stories are equal. The most successful stories are neither too easy nor too difficult to understand. They don’t confuse the learner, but don’t offer obvious lessons, either. Sung-il Kim’s research shows that people are most interested in stories when they have to make “medium-level” inferences to piece together the logic behind the plot’s advancement. In seeking these causal connections, the audience becomes an active participant in the story’s creation.

This healthy dose of nuance becomes even more important when the stories are about topics like leadership and management. Leaders operate within environments that are particularly complex, with high levels of uncertainty and conditions that can change quickly. These leaders rarely have access to perfect information, and decisions often lack the sort of black-and-white clarity a heavy-handed teaching story might portray. To be pedagogically useful––and, let’s face it, believable––teaching cases about leadership must also model this real-world complexity.

In a facilitator-led model, these real-world stories might be shared by the instructor as one element of a larger lesson. At Nomadic, they’re our content’s cornerstone. We build each module around a curated story with a structure that ensures learners actively engage with the story and begin the process of applying what they’ve learned. This structure includes the introduction of threshold concepts: notions that, once understood, help push learners to conceive of and discuss the story in new ways. It also includes asking learners to actively extract insights from the story and work with teammates to find opportunities to apply them.

Five tips for effective learning stories

We’ve discovered some helpful principles for identifying and curating stories that will facilitate cohort engagement. Stories should be:

  1. Short (three-to-four minute videos/podcasts or 500-word written passages)
  2. Relatively open-ended
  3. Conducive to discussion or debate
  4. Driven by an identifiable human individual or group protagonist
  5. Based on actual people and events rather than simulations

Finally, we’ve also observed that stories work best when they’re inspired by the underlying capabilities and concepts we seek to teach, rather than the immediate subject matter. For example, just because we’re teaching people how to organize teams effectively doesn’t mean we’re limited to straightforward stories about collaboration at the office. Instead we could (and did!) discuss this topic much more effectively with a delightful animation about honeybees.

More principles of effective cohort-based learning

For more takeaways on cohort design, read our report, Cohort-Based Learning at Scale: Eight Principles for Success. We discuss why cohort-based learning is gaining so much popularity, how to ensure cohort-based learning design is effective, and the research behind it all.

Interested to learn more about Nomadic’s cohort-based academies? Learn about our approach, or get in touch to request a demo.

Arguing at work (and why it’s not all that bad)

One aspect of effective cohort-based learning design is teaching learners to argue. Read more about how cohorts provide space to disagree constructively.