Why we remember the stories

Why we remember the stories

In a recent post, we saw that grade school and graduate school classrooms are similar in at least one basic way. In both venues, using narrative-based approaches is an effective device for teachers who strive to help class participants retain information.

As I have written here before, my extensive experience as a lecturer in a variety of contexts has perhaps left me with some atypical ideas about teaching. For example, I believe that the most effective instructors are not so much those who explain things accurately and completely, but rather those who frame explanations in a memorable format, one that students will actually remember and use.

To me, this fundamental concept holds true regardless of the age of the class members. And, I have seen clear evidence that, with both young children and masters degree students, making things memorable often involves linking lessons to stories.

How did this evolution in my thinking come about? As I have written before, in my early years as a business school professor, I taught mostly using traditional models. This meant presenting information in the form of lectures, using slides or writing key concepts on a blackboard. We read textbooks, discussed scholarly articles, watched video interviews with business people or academic authorities in the field of management.

While I always enjoyed preparing and teaching this way, I look back on it now with questions about its value. For example, why were there only rare cases of former students coming back to tell me that they were actually using our lessons in their jobs?

Consequently, moving toward giving case studies a central place in my courses was part of my effort to go beyond engaging class participants in the moment of contact. My research was convincing me more and more that people remember story far better than abstract information or logic. As such, I was searching for ways to leave students with something lasting, some knowledge that they might be able to refer to during their careers.

So, what precisely is it about narrative that makes it stick in our memories? Over time, I have come up with a multitude of reasons, but the most fundamental one is exceedingly simple. Stories, or case studies in the context of my classes, give learning a human element that we identify with.

Since our lives are stories, and since human beings are generally empathic, we can easily relate to the stories of others. In my opinion, this human aspect is the primary characteristic that aids our memories.

By way of a simple illustration, we might look at the exercise of teaching market segmentation. For those who may not be familiar with this term, “market segmentation” is the process of dividing the universe of potential customers into groups, or “segments”, based on shared characteristics.

In essence, segments are composed of consumers who will probably respond similarly to marketing strategies because they share traits—common interests, needs, or geographic locations, for example. By arranging a target market into such segmented groups, companies can be more efficient with their resources. Market segmentation remains an abstract concept, one we must understand with our heads.

When we lecture about concepts such as segmentation, we provide logical sets of rules and procedures. While such explanations give students a necessary and useful framework, they are abstract, and not very memorable.

In one of the cases I use often in marketing management classes, there is an animated discussion between two individuals with diverging points of view on segmentation strategy: an executive responsible for worldwide practices, and the German country manager.

Over time, I discovered that giving a human face to academic theory can be quite effective as a mnemonic device. Many years after having discussed the case, former students tell me that they can still see in their minds the surprisingly fiery conflict between two major players at the company. Recalling this anecdotal element of the case is what helps them remember the basic principles of market segmentation.

In a future post, I will discuss how I improved my ability to incorporate lecturing about theoretical concepts in my case-based classes.


Image: Flickr user Benjamin Thomas