Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Provoking Learners with Story Questions - Tip #42

Why are questions powerful and important? How do we design them to provoke, instigate and encourage learners to think and reflect and apply learning ideas?

Shifting Gears

Story questions help learners "shift gears" in their minds during learning and un-learning.  Story questions act like automatic shifting mechanisms to transition the learners from fact to event to owning the story.

This is how it works. 

Memory Gears and Shifts

Learning and memory go hand in hand. While the methods of learning are diverse, all information and stimulus we learn are stockpiled into our memory. That's where we keep these nuggets of knowledge, experience, judgments, and emotions until such time we need them, or they are triggered by external factors.

As learning designers, we need to be able to touch and spark people's memories in order to (1) ensure the learning is retained and (2) help the learners realize the value of what they learned by connecting it with what they already know.

How do we do that? That's where Story Questions come in. Story Questions shift the memory gears.

How Memory Works

Michael Corballis is a well-known psychologist and author from the University of Auckland in New Zealand. His learning theory states that there are three main kinds of memory:

1. Semantic memory - which is a database of our knowledge about the world (facts that we know) 

2. Episodic memory - memory processed in relation to time (events that have happened in     our lives)

Example # 1 : Password Security:

SEMANTIC: As per our guidelines, passwords should contain six letters, three numerals and a punctuation mark. 

EPISODIC: John's son was born in August at 3:37pm and it was the happiest moment of his life.

Password Submitted: August337!

Example # 2 : Performance Reviews:

SEMANTIC: Human Resources require team managers to submit review forms every three months: April, July, October and December. 

EPISODIC: Aimee's Team received a commendation from the Head of Human Resources for being the first department to complete the reports for the last two periods. She received a raise and an increase in her team budget. 

3. Autobiographical memory - is our own version of the fact and  episode. This is "My Story." Corballis notes that people "insert themselves" in the story, change the story and have their own interpretation of the story. This is how we learn.
Example # 1 : Password Security: John  has a password that he will never forget or lose because he has his own version of a password and an event that means a lot to him.
Example # 2: Performance Reviews: Through positive reinforcement, Aimee is sure to keep those reports coming on time and to keep her team happy. She knows that continuing to perform better than expected yields great benefits for her and her team. 

Recursive Learning and Story Questions

Our challenge is to create questions that stimulate these memory types and encourage learners to connect the knowledge and encourage them to create their autobiographical memories. As it was stated in a study published by the US National Library of Medicine using memory types, we need to tap into what they know (semantic memory) and what they have experienced (episodic memory) to make this learning desirable and relevant. Corballis calls the iterative process Recursive Learning. Recursive Learning is constant shifting of gears.

Constantly asking questions of the learners facilitates the movement or shifting of the mind's gears from fact to episodes and to My Story. This happens in both unconscious and instantaneous processes. Here are some examples of Story Questions:

      • What does this mean for you?
      • What does this remind you of?
      • What do you think about when you hear...?  or see...?
      • How is this similar to your own experience?
      • What would happen if...?
This leads us to the concept of Recursive Learning.


In this video, we see how a student in MIT uses the Recursive Learning Model.
The student used the following Story Questions to get the most out of the course. Although the student did not ask the questions, he responded, in his mind, to Story Questions to help him learn.

      • What is the distinction between sequential and recursive learning?
      • What is the big picture of the process in recursive learning?
      • Why is it important to get a layout of the land first?
      • When should you go superficial or the detailed way?
      • What do you do to get a general idea versus deep understanding?
      • Where do you hone down your focus to learn more?
  As you probably noticed, Story Questions rely heavily on the learner's memories and their experiences. By simply asking the right types of questions, we create an immediate link to what they are learning and what they already know in their minds. These questions facilitate the recursive learning process and encourage learners to continue learning.


Memory is more than just a databank of facts and figures for the learner. For more effective learning, we need to tap into the Autobiographical Memory of the learners using relevant and precise questions. The Story Questions shift the mind to learn.


Autobiographical memory

How do episodic and semantic memory contribute to episodic foresight in young children?

Instant and Rapid One-Minute Learning for mLearning and eLearning

Ray Jimenez, PhD
Vignettes Learning
"Helping Learners Learn Their Way"

No comments:

Post a Comment

Welcome! Sharing your comments is very valuable learning experience for me and others. Thanks!