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Harness the Power of Stories for Great eLearning Design

Design + Story = Learning

An open book with fairy lights coming out signifying imagination.
Photo by Nong Vang on Unsplash

If you work in learning design, you’ve no doubt heard of the value of storytelling for engaging your audience and creating a memorable learning experience. If you’ve tried implementing stories in your courses, you’ve also discovered that it’s not all that easy to do well.

Here’s a quick why-what-when-who, and most importantly, how to use stories when you’re designing e-learning courses.

Why stories?

There’s lots of research on this. Stories (when properly done) create relevance and emotional engagement for your learners. This emotional connection to the material they’re learning boosts understanding and retention. Did I mention “when properly done?” Because that’s essential, and that’s what we’re addressing here.

What are stories?

Of course, everyone knows what a story is! In the e-learning environment, there are three potential levels of storytelling, and each has its place.

Story: What we typically think of as a story, a narrative with characters, plot, and a beginning, middle, and end, is the most difficult to use well in e-learning. Not only do you have to design for the learner, but you also have to be a skilled creative writer too! Alternatively, you can collaborate with a writer. This is an option I find very rewarding.

A story allows you to create a broad context and involve your learner along the way. It offers opportunities for choices and, most importantly, meaningful consequences. (As opposed to less-meaningful consequences, such as “that was incorrect.”). A full-blown story in your e-learning allows your learner to experience the emotional consequences of otherwise dry material.

For example, a company policy prohibiting discrimination. Simple to read and understand. Much more compelling to see the effects on human lives when it’s followed or not followed. A full-blown story should be tied to the performance objectives your learner wants to achieve.

Scenario: A scenario is another type of story, but it’s more like a scene. It doesn’t really have a beginning, middle, and end. It’s tightly defined and most likely uses characters to illustrate a specific event or interaction that applies to your learning objectives. Use scenarios when you want an interaction that allows learners to practice applying knowledge or making decisions within a real-world context. Use feedback to learner input to show consequences of the learner’s choices. The scenario allows you to make those consequences take human form by using the characters in the scenario you set up. For example, a call center employee may need to practice handling irate customers. Excellent responses can earn feedback where the customer confesses to being over-sensitive because of a recent death in the family, while the learner’s impatient response earns feedback designed to create guilt about making another person’s difficult life even harder.

Analogies: Analogies are mini-stories that use a bit of shorthand to illustrate and clarify. Especially when combined with examples (and the necessary twin, the non-example), they build a mental model for the learner by relating the new thing to a previously understood thing. An analogy allows you to express a rich and detailed concept with just a few words. For example, you’re training a claims adjuster. Instead of saying, “You’ll be examining files to determine if …” you can say, “Time to play Sherlock Holmes with the information.”

When should you use stories?

Evaluate your content, your audience, and the constraints of your project to decide when you should use stories and what type of stories will work best.

Use a full-blown story when it may be difficult for learners to transfer new knowledge to the places where it needs to be applied, or to the behaviors they are supposed to change.

As the designer, you’re looking for a way to help your learner acquire knowledge as well as use it at the point where it’s needed. There may be a big gap between when and where your training is deployed, and the moment of need. A story can help you bridge that gap. It helps learners practice the knowledge or skill within the appropriate context.

The story creates an emotional memory of the behavior and consequence that can be repeated when needed.

Who needs stories in e-learning?

Student in library reading a book.
Photo by Dollar Gill on Unsplash

Not every audience needs or wants a story to go with their learning experience. Too often, instructional designers design to engage themselves or other designers without truly considering the learner experience. It’s fun to pull out all the stops when you’re designing! But if it’s not needed, your beautiful story is likely to receive complaints of “fluff” and “wasting time.” Why? Because learners need to feel they’re learning first, not reading a novel.

Audience and content evaluation allow you to determine at the start if storytelling is the best vehicle. If you’re designing a course that teaches technical skills, your design should focus on giving students a project. They need a goal to attach their new skills too. A story isn’t necessary to motivate, and the learner doesn’t need a lot of help to contextualize the skills they’re learning.

Do your analysis before embarking on a storytelling design.

How do I design and write a great e-learning story?

Now we get to the most difficult part: Designing and writing the best story for your e-learning project.

As with so many things in instructional design, a story as a design strategy is part science and part art. To get you started in the right direction, here are some tips for crafting the best e-learning story for your course. I’m talking about designing a full-blown story here, though you may want to incorporate scenarios and examples.

Start with your performance goals and audience analysis.

Plan your story so that there’s conflict aligned with the behaviors and performance of your learners are trying to develop. The outcome of the story needs to illustrate your desired performance objectives. Along the way, you can match plot points with learning objectives as much as possible.

Flesh out your characters so they become people your learners can relate to.

Here’s a hint: That doesn’t always mean “Budget-conscious Ian who’s struggling to decide between cost and quality as he selects a vendor.” While some stories will succeed with characters who are very similar to your learners, if the job is inherently pretty tedious, it’s hard to create believable drama around them.

Photo by Jeet Dhanoa on Unsplash

For example, if your course is about nurses who need to learn how to work with patients who come from different cultures, your characters should be aligned with both the nurses and the patients. There’s plenty of room for conflict and consequence in these interactions. But if your training is about corporate policies for submitting expense reports, you should get creative with your characters and your story’s plot points in order to attach emotion and consequence to the desired behaviors.

Consider options like making your characters outrageously inept or show them overcoming a series of over-the-top obstacles. Humor can make the bitterest of boring e-learning pills go down a little easier.

Involve your learners throughout the story.

As you weave your story, your learner needs to be part of the fabric. The best way to do this is to ask the learner to interact with the story.

You don’t always need to use branching scenarios for this. Sometimes you can do this simply, by asking what the characters should be doing at various points given the current circumstances. If the performance you’re teaching involves complex decisions, branching scenarios with different outcomes could be the way to go.

Whatever you do, make sure your story is only as detailed as it needs to be to pull the learner in. Don’t create complexity where it’s not needed.

Find the emotion, but don’t write a novel.

In other words, don’t go overboard with your story. This can be difficult, but it’s key to success. The goal is to ensure that your story never overwhelms the learning goals. It needs to support and enhance the learner experience. If your story is too involved, you’ll increase your learner’s cognitive load unnecessarily. If your characters aren’t relatable, the emotional engagement won’t be there. If the events and plot of your story feel false and contrived, your learner is bored and annoyed instead of engaged.

And now for some examples!

I’ll leave you with some examples of how I’ve seen stories applied effectively to e-learning. Enjoy!

Example 1: HIPAA training

Course goal: Teach proper HIPAA procedures for healthcare professionals.

Story: A sneaky spy is able to gather private patient information. The learner must use the proper procedures to foil the spy’s evil intentions.

Why it works: HIPAA is all about privacy and keeping information confidential. It isn’t inherently dramatic to follow proper procedures, so the spy element gives the training an extra boost of drama and interest.

What kind of story wouldn’t work here: A shoot-em-up game where the learner has to identify and target wrong-doers. Shooting targets isn’t relevant to the healthcare goals, and it doesn’t do anything to help illustrate the consequence of not following procedures.

Example 2: The Healthcare Business Environment for Diabetes Devices

Course goal: Teach marketers about the healthcare environment relative to selling diabetes devices.

Story: A town is in dire economic straits. The learner/player acting as the new town mayor must align all elements of the community in order to make the money flow through and create prosperity.

Why it works: The environment in question involves multiple players: government, manufacturers, patients, healthcare workers. By making it a community where all elements need to work together to find success, the learner develops an understanding of each community member’s needs and purpose. The learner is the hero that brings them all together to create success.

What kind of story wouldn’t work here: A story making one of the players the hero would put an inappropriate emphasis on that element of the community.

Example 3: Real Estate Licensees and Seller Disclosure Rules

Course goal: Teach real estate licensees how to ensure sellers understand and meet their disclosure obligations.

Story: A real estate agent wins a listing for a high-end desirable home, but the seller doesn’t feel it’s necessary to follow rules. The agent has to make decisions and communicate effectively.

Why it works: Learners in this environment want modeling to see how the job is done. There are inherent drama and conflict in the interaction with a client unwilling to meet legal obligations.

What kind of story wouldn’t work here: A direct conflict where the learner is pitted against the seller client and one or the other “wins.”

One last tip: work with a talented writer.

A full-blown story requires skilled writing. If you’re an ID that doesn’t have serious creative writing chops, consider collaborating with a writer who has these skills.

As the ID, you’ll direct what needs to happen in the story so it aligns with your performance and learning goals. You’ll also review the story and ask for revisions to ensure that it’s as concise and focused as you need it to be. The writer is responsible for making the story flow, creating characters with emotional impact, developing the plot that brings your learning content to life, and using lively, readable language.

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Sara Pehrsson

Sara Pehrsson

Hermit. Instructional designer. Caretaker for my animal family. And writer.

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