Everyone must have experienced that rare moment of humanity when an instructor shares a comical anecdote. (My favorite was a tree falling into my instructor's living room and his deadpan reaction of "well, that's bad.") Injecting short stories into your lectures is never a bad idea, but this post is not about that. This post is about taking elements of stories that make them memorable and applying them to lectures. So what makes a story... well, good?
This is a big question. One proposal that seems convincing is Joseph Campbell's monomyth framework.1 Campbell posits that many narratives from around the world exhibit a basic outline of a hero's journey from a (known) stable world, to an (unknown) suspenseful realm, and back again. Think of the Lord of the Rings books or the original Star Wars movies as a modern example.
So can we, as lecture designers, use any of this? I say, sure! In our case, the student is the hero/ine who steps from the known world (understanding) to the unknown world (new concepts). The journey (lecture/course) brings her back to the known world through the guidance of a mentor (the instructor) and helpers (teaching assistants). So what are some concrete tips we can draw from this parallelism? Let me propose two:
- Call to Adventure: Think of a bad movie you saw recently. I'm willing to bet you that the reason you didn't like it is because you didn't relate to and/or understand the problem. Same thing with lectures. Students who can't immediately see why they are studying what they are studying will be less likely to pay attention. What to do? Try to precisely motivate the challenge to be tackled in the lecture at the very beginning. Convince your students that the story you're about to tell them matters. Not just to the world, but that it matters to them. This (image) is what you're going for, right off the bat.
- Suspense in the Unknown World: Suspense is a great narrative tool. It presents an irresistible incentive to pay attention. The audience feels invested in the problem. Well, guess what? The "unknown world" of lectures if full of problems! So use suspense to draw the students in. Separate the description of your examples from their solutions. Instead of first lecturing on a topic and then following up with examples, state the example first but don't solve it just yet. Get your students to think about it. (How about a short "think-pair-share" exercise or a clicker question?) This creates tension as students realize that they need more knowledge to solve the problem. Now lecture for a bit to develop the necessary knowledge base, and finally solve the example to conclude the suspense. Same material, same time, but so much more exciting!
1Campbell, Joseph. "The Hero with a Thousand Faces." (1949).