Structure, context and emotion—how narrative helps us learn and remember

Structure, context and emotion—how narrative helps us learn and remember

After writing the previous entry, I realized how much more there is to say about the power of narrative as a teaching device. Since storytelling has been a central focus of my work, writing and public speaking since the 1990s, I could probably go on discussing the subject for a long time.

Rather than do that, though, I will close this theme for now, focusing today and next time on just three additional elements that make narrative such an effective device for all types of instruction. In sum, narrative helps us learn and use our lessons because story is sequential, contextual, and emotional.

The first of the key characteristics that serves us well in our learning endeavors is the logical, sequential structure of any tale.

One of the ways I like to look at this is to think of the brain as a repository for information. When teachers lecture, they ask students to fill their heads with facts and data. In this process, the brain can begin to feel like a large catchall cabinet into which random items are tossed.

If large quantities of information are thrown in, the closet soon becomes cluttered, and recalling precisely where anything is becomes a challenge. The longer this goes on, the more all the facts and data in our “cabinet” becomes hopelessly lost, and we have difficulty remembering where we left things, or even why we put them there.

Contrast this with the organization of a narrative. As opposed to fact and data, story is logical and sequential. As such, we recall it with little effort, as a complete whole, and far better than we can remember loose pieces of information. Because of its structure, all the details of a story fit neatly into place.

By their very nature, anecdotes provide logical sequences that remain easy to remember. If we continue with my storage space metaphor, stories give a natural structure to our cupboard, helping us visualize how everything fits together, and where the information sits. I think of the sequential makeup of any tale as a set of “hooks” that allow us to process and recall all the details we hang on them.

Beyond its logical structure, though, narrative also helps us learn and remember by providing a context. To me, this question of context is indeed a crucial one. My years as a lecturer have shown me that it is often context that helps cement a lesson in students’ minds.

In essence, cases are narratives that put organizational lessons in a framework, and that context aids the process of recall. If we consider the market segmentation example I used in two recent posts, we observe this effect clearly. Students who struggle to recall anything from a theoretical lecture about market segmentation will often remember just how Citibank arrived at a strategy for segmenting their Asian markets.

Of course, it is the phenomenon of learning with sequential narrative structures and in a defined context that helps students learn and use such concepts.

If we add emotion into the mix, the memory effect of story becomes still more powerful. My former students speak of the elements of cases that made lasting impressions, they often cite moments of human emotion—decisions taken in anger or heated discussions among managers, for example.

Next time, I will explore a bit further the effect of emotion on memory, and how instructors can take advantage of it.




Image: Flickr user Travis Wise