Story-based eLearning: To use or not to use?

By Mugdha Narkar



Stories have always been an integral part of our lives, ranging from interesting fables and bedtime stories, typically involving animals and other things that are part of the children’s world, to gripping novels and magazines that interest adults, to entertaining and engaging animations, and even films. With technological advent and changing interests, stories entered the digital world in the form of DVDs, short videos, documentaries, eBooks, online blogs and articles.


One of the biggest challenge that the instructional designers face while developing eLearning content is to keep up the engagement quotient of the course. The learners need to be kept engaged and involved in the course throughout, while facilitating and ensuring a successful knowledge transfer. Adding the elements of storytelling in learning courseware is an effective way to deal with this challenge


A well-woven story can successfully transport the learners into the story environment and straight into the lives of interesting and believable characters. However, the plot and challenges within the story should be well thought and must have a strong relevance to the content by addressing the learning objectives. However, to enhance user engagement, it also needs to be supported with the necessary visuals and/or audio to add life to the learning content.


Why include a story?

Using stories in eLearning courseware has two major benefits:


  1. Increased engagement of the learner

    There are times when the content being presented in the courseware is quite dry and not so exciting. This is especially true in case of technical courses. However, as instructional designers, it is our job to make the content interesting for the learners. There can be three most common yet interesting ways to integrate story-based approach with such a not-so-exciting content

    We can either simply build up a single interesting story around this not-so-exciting content or share small stories or anecdotes from experts to add relevance and engagement. Alternatively, we can create short stories or mini scenarios and present them as supporting examples or case studies. The more familiar a story feels to a learner, the more powerful it is!

  2. Better retention of the learned concepts

    Building up a story around real-life situations and experiences faced by the learners in their job makes it more convincing. This enables the learners to make an instant connect with the story as they relate to the instances mentioned in it. This enhances the retention value and prompts the learners to apply the learned concepts in their job.

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What crafts an effective story?

So, is it enough to build up a story for every course to make it effective? Certainly not!

Stories do entertain the learner and there are no second thoughts about that! But, mere entertainment cannot be the purpose of adding a story in a course. A story is effective only when it has a definite purpose and weaves through the learning objectives for the course. Therefore, it is extremely important to gather appropriate and correct inputs from the SMEs during the analysis phase in terms of real-life situations faced by the learner. Collecting inputs in the form of multiple realistic situations is an ideal way to script a convincing and effective story.


A story to be integrated in an eLearning course should essentially have four components:

1. Trigger

2. Plot

3. Characters

4. Setting


Trigger is the most essential element of a story that answers the question “What?” It sets the context for the story by describing the situation or plot for the story. Sometimes it is incorporated within the story, while some other times it is the background for the events unfolding in the story. While scripting the trigger part, an instructional designer has to consider the findings of the Analysis phase like the audience profile, enabling objectives identified for the course, typical problems/situations faced by the learners in connection with the learning objectives, etc.

Let’s take an example of a course that covers different features of a tool. While building a story around such content, it is not a good strategy to directly put forth information about what the character wants to do with the tool. Although learners may be able to identify the features of the tool that would help the character achieve the desired outcome, user engagement would be missing. The leaner will not be able to connect with the character. Now, let’s add a trigger here. If we provide a short description about the implications faced by the character because of the lack of knowledge before presenting with information about what needs to be done, it certainly helps the learner connect better. It emphasizes the need as to why learner should learn about a particular feature. However, any superfluous information should be avoided in all circumstances as it may take the learners’ attention away from the desired learning outcome.

Plot adds details around the trigger of the story by answering questions like “Who?”, “When?”, “Where?” and “How?” It typically introduces the characters, outlines the actual problem, and builds the story up to the decision point. A thoughtful decision point is where the learner is expected to make a choice between different options that decide further course of action in the story. If the course is expected to proceed in a linear way, learners can be guided at the decision point and steered towards the correct path. The outcome of the last decision point thus provides the desired closure to the story.

Characters are the ones that help learners associate themselves with the story. Therefore, it is very important to establish the characters in the story very well. This can be achieved by referring to the audience details obtained during Analysis phase. Once the purpose of the character in the story is known, it becomes easier to fill in other supporting details. Typically, a character in an eLearning course can be a novice, an expert, or a mentor, depending upon the target audience and the expected outcome. However, care should be taken to not invest in providing too many extraneous details about the character. This may unnecessarily extend the duration of the course and even mislead the learner.

Setting includes all the visual and auditory elements that help in adding life to the story. The visuals should focus on creating a virtual environment that suits the target audience and also supports the learning objectives. However, the visuals should not override the main story, its plot or the content. The purpose of the settings should be limited to supporting the content.

How to use stories in eLearning?

While analyzing content for an eLearning course, it needs to be first classified into one of the five identified content types. Content can be classified as established fact, concept, procedure, process, and principle. It is certainly possible that the content might be a mixture of two or more content types. For example, there may be a few facts, a procedure and a few principles that govern the procedure. Just as there are different types of content included in eLearning, there can be different ways to treat this content through stories.

Narrative-based approach

One way is to present the entire course in the form of a continuous story, where the learner is asked to help out a character deal with certain situations or perform certain tasks that are part of the learner’s responsibilities in the real life. These situations/tasks can also be leveraged as decision points in case of a branched scenario.



For example, merely stating the best practices to be followed for handling customer interactions or a sales call would be all theoretical and not particularly engaging for adult learners. A narrative-based approach is especially useful for such behavior-based courses. The behavioral changes can be emphasized through a continuous story that has sample customer interactions along with corrective and diagnostic feedbacks.

Case-based approach
If the course is too content heavy and technical, then instead of presenting all the content in the form of story, only a selected set of content can be presented in the form of examples or case studies. Examples or case studies are very effective as tools to convey the right kind of behavior to the learners in descriptive yet concrete way. You can convincingly use good examples to reinforce the desired behavior, and non-examples to caution against the undesired behavior. Using non-examples at the right decision points in the course enables learners to relate to them and identify the undesired behavior they have been practicing so far.



For example, informing the learners about not sharing their personal data with anyone will not grab the learners’ attention, and therefore they may not remember the reason why. However, using a case-based approach, we can simply show a sample case, where personal data has been compromised and the character is now facing the consequences due to lack of knowledge or sheer negligence. This case-based approach emphasizes the severity of consequences that may follow after sharing their personal data and thus grab the learners’ attention, thereby enhancing retention.

Scenario-based approach
Stories can also be used to test how much the learner has understood. These can be in the form of short scenario-based practice questions. Such interactivities require the learner to analyze the situation described in the scenario and weigh the options presented therein before choosing the correct one(s). However, the complexity of such scenario-based questions can vary depending on the complexity of the content, learning objectives, and the budget of the project. Here, the options can also be in the form of interactions between the characters. In such knowledge check questions, an elaborate feedback is extremely important in order to let the learner compare and evaluate his own thought process and learn about the correct options. Scenario-based questions can also be included in final assessments that are taken at the end of an eLearning course. However, in this case, the options have to be short and crisp as no elaborate question-specific feedback is provided.



For example, the best practices of handling a difficult situation like communicating negative feedback to a team member can be listed in a topic. But applying these practices to a situation can help the learners relate better as well as think rationally. Therefore, to enforce the knowledge about these best practices, a short situation can be presented to the learner where some negative feedback needs to be conveyed tactfully. Learners can then analyze the given circumstances and decide the best approach that would work.

Problem-based or simulation-based approach
Lastly, business simulations that mimic the real-life challenges faced by the learner are very useful to give a hands-on yet virtual experience of the events to the learner. In a simulation, the learner is thrown into a challenging situation and is allowed to apply his just-learned skills in a risk-free simulated environment. Here, the learners are able to explore the right as well as wrong courses of actions without being faced with any real consequences. This gives a virtual platform to the learners to make mistakes and learn from them.



For example, instead of a simple MCQ that requires the learners to select the correct steps to be undertaken for a particular task in a particular order, a mini scenario that describes the situation where a dummy onscreen character is required to undertake those steps to solve the small problem can be more effective. The dummy character can be portrayed as a novice and learners can be put in a position of mentor, where they need to guide the character to choose the correct steps and/or arrange them in the correct sequence. In the latter case, the learners can relate to the novice character and feel a moral obligation to pay more attention in order to perform the steps in the correct sequence.

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