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Online narrative learning is a powerful tool to engage learners through case studies, stories, and simulations.


As educator Marsha Rossiter (in “Narrative and Stories in Adult Teaching and Learning” in ERIC DIGEST) has noted: “Narrative is deeply appealing and richly satisfying to the human soul, with an allure that transcends cultures, centuries, ideologies, and academic disciplines.”

When properly designed and executed, narrative learning can help improve comprehension and mastery of concepts; it can also challenge learners to analyze, synthesize, and make decisions—the sorts of more complex cognition that tests the ability of learners to apply what they have learned.

Narrative learning taps into the power of storytelling. Storytelling has deep evolutionary roots. Humans are wired to learn from stories. We fashion meaning from them, and they help lend order to our world.

We connect naturally with narrative structure and its sequential resolution of conflict. Some students may be more inclined to pay attention, make connections, and retain information presented in the form of a story. Stories, simulations, and case studies can make it clear to an adult learner just how the information they are being taught can be applied in real world circumstances.

Narrative can become a powerful learning tool in the classroom and beyond, bringing abstract concepts to life. Stories provide our minds with vivid pictures—ones that we are more likely to remember.

Narrative techniques are at the forefront of today’s innovation in adult learning—case studies, interactive scenarios, games, graphic nonfiction stories, and simulation. The narrative structure appeals to learners who, for example, can compare the arc of a brief business mini-case with what they have experienced in the workplace.

Instructional designer Chris Jennings (in “Speaking Your Mind: Using elements of narrative storytelling in eLearning” in eLearn Magazine) has argued: “The best stories show, rather than tell. They resonate emotionally with readers, offering a sense of urgency, relief, accomplishment. Because of their inherent similarities, narrative stories can be great for situated learning by using real-world simulations that students can act out or practice in context.”

Case studies, for example, are valuable because they encourage learners to apply their knowledge and actively engage in the learning process. Case studies are valuable for building problem-solving skills, can offer stimulating collaborative assignments, and can be particularly useful in illustrating how to apply and practice new concepts.

Designing narrative learning starts with an understanding of the basics of storytelling—of understanding the arc of a story and how to employ conflict and resolution to engage learners. Narrative learning can be a valuable and powerful addition to online courses and resources.

Copyright © 2014 MindEdge, Inc.

You can find MindEdge CEO Jefferson Flanders’ guest column on adaptive learning at Edtechdigest by “clicking here.”


Leading an online discussion is both similar to and different from leading a classroom discussion. Instructors should be aware of the advantages and disadvantages of each of these types of forums.

Online instructors must remember that students may be new to the subject matter and often need help in having productive conversations in discussion forums or virtual classroom settings.

Instructors can help facilitate these interactions by prompting learners when conversations stall or head off course. They may need to gently correct statements made in a group setting that are inaccurate or foster a misinterpretation of the material.

The best discussion topics encourage learners to apply what they have learned in the course content, either to what they already know or to new circumstances. Another approach is to ask students to take a position on a question and explain why they are doing so.

To spark collaboration among learners, instructors can ask students to jointly resolve a difficult question through discussion (in larger classes, some instructors use polling technology to surface the “winning” position.)

Here are tips from experienced online instructors for leading discussions, both in real-time and iterative modes.

  • Establish the parameters at the outset for appropriate discussion (parameters which might include civility, courtesy, respect for others, no use of profanity, etc.). This can be communicated through an initial post and/or in the course outline. You may want students to know that you reserve the right to edit or delete posts.


  • Connect topics with the readings and online materials but seek to challenge students to think critically and move beyond simple recall. For example, a discussion about the origins of the Civil War might be started by asking students whether or not the North and South could have found a compromise to avert war and what would such a compromise have looked like. This sort of question asks learners to synthesize and move beyond a simple recitation of what they’ve encountered in the course materials.


  • Encourage all learners to participate in online discussions by linking their involvement to grades or by providing other incentives.


  • Praise learner posts that contribute to a discussion.


  • Guide off-topic conversations back to the question at hand.


  • Ask students to describe their real world experiences (where appropriate) as a way of making the discussion more relevant.


  • Don’t feel the need to constantly interject yourself into the discussion—pick your spots judiciously.

When handled correctly, online discussions can engage and involve all the students in a course or class. Some students who don’t feel comfortable contributing in a classroom setting find online discussions more inviting. The more an instructor can do to encourage this participation, the greater pedagogical value this activity will have for learners.

Copyright © 2014 MindEdge, Inc.

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