December 16th 2021

Learning from home: Can we learn better from stories than from textbooks?

A first insight into the book chapter of the same name published in "Remote (& Hybrid) Working: Variants, Determinants, Outcomes."

One of the particularly visible consequences of the Covid 19 pandemic was the scaling back of most social gatherings. Educational institutions were also affected, both traditional institutions such as schools and universities as well as sites of corporate learning. This resulted in a greater need for distance and hybrid learning, which could be met in a very different way with today's technical and digital capabilities than was the case just a few years ago. One of the didactic methods less considered in this context so far is storytelling, the potential of which Yevgen Bogodistov and Martin Dinter, from the MCI Department "Business Administration Online", investigated in an experiment in one of the bachelor courses.

One of the larger problems associated with home office use, which has become significantly more common as a result of the Covid 19 pandemic, is likely to be the resulting lack of opportunities for informal learning, which plays a particularly significant role in the work context. Informal learning is understood as learning that is fed by everyday activities and that is not anchored in any formal teaching-learning setting. The daily exchange between work colleagues during the coffee break, in which the participants not only learn something about the activities of the others but also relate their own activities to them and can thus understand larger process flows, is a good example of this type of learning. It is also based on certain randomness and usually does not have a set learning goal, but happens en-passant. This type of learning is very important in corporate learning - some authors, e.g. Michael Eraut, one of the most important researchers of informal learning, even go so far as to consider it the biggest factor of a competent workforce. However, due to its random nature, it requires corresponding opportunities, which are becoming rarer due to the use of home offices. One way to counter this lack of opportunities is the intentional use of storytelling, whose use as a didactic tool is based on similar principles, so-called experiential learning. According to this theory, learning consists of two processes:

  1. Gathering experience, first through concrete experiences, e.g., observations, then through abstract conceptualization, in which the concrete experiences are summarized, thereby generating concepts of the world that are linked to evaluations and judgments.
  2. Transforming experience through reflective observation and active experimentation. It could be assumed that these experiences must always be experienced by oneself in order to learn effectively from them.

Apparently, however, a "second-hand" experience is already sufficient to form the corresponding neuronal structures. Who observes others, how they make an experience, can learn from this experience him or herself.

This is where the link between learning and storytelling comes in. Two points in particular seem to be relevant in this context: On the one hand, stories convey emotions that make the audience empathize or even identify with the corresponding character. On the other hand, a story can also represent a form of simulation in which the audience is given the opportunity to experience the competencies depicted in the story and to make them their own within this framework. In the management field, stories have been used for training purposes for quite some time. A successful example that goes beyond academic use is the novel "The Goal" by Eliyahu Goldratt, in which the protagonist encounters seemingly unsolvable personal and professional problems and is helped to overcome them by meeting a consultant. Goldratt does not limit himself to describing hints on how to act in a given situation but lets his protagonist live through that very situation using his assistance. According to critics, the book became one of the 25 most influential business books.

In our research, we were interested in two questions: In our research, we were interested in two questions:

  1. How are stories perceived, what is the reader's personal attitude toward storytelling?
  2. What objectively measurable learning outcomes are evident through storytelling?

To answer the questions, students in an undergraduate course wrote a series of stories that were distributed to nearly 800 participants. The participants had to read the story, then rate the story in terms of its information content, their own reading pleasure, and the emotions they felt, as well as complete a short test that asked them about the information conveyed in the stories.

In fact, we were able to confirm our hypotheses: It turned out that the information content of stories was perceived as higher than the information content of pure technical texts. The perceived usefulness of the knowledge contained in stories also appeared higher to the participants. Finally, learning outcomes also turned out to be higher when information was conveyed through stories rather than purely technical texts. One point stood out in particular: Pleasantness matters! The funnier a story was perceived, the greater the learning effect. And the more the participants felt that they were "in control" after reading the story, i.e., that they had seen through the core of the topic described, the better they learned. So obviously storytelling can be a useful tool in times when most of the information is absorbed online, detached from colleagues.


Written by: Martin Dinter, Co-author of this book chapter


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