By Amy Erickson
Grabbing the Brain
This week, I watched Dr. Alice Cassidy’s 20-Minute Mentor video “How Can I Enhance Class Using Story, Popular Media and Objects?” At the beginning of this video, Dr. Cassidy (2012) poses an important question: “What can you do to grab the brain’s attention?” (para. 8). Her question reminded me of several things, including a conversation with a fellow instructor, a blog post by cognitive neuroscientist Daniel Willingham, and another Mentor Commons video by Dr. B. Jean Mandernach.
I have a friend who teaches residential business classes for a small college in the Twin Cities. In addition to being an adjunct instructor, she performs spoken word poetry, holds the title Slam Master, and recently founded a theater. She calls herself a storyteller and frequently uses stories to teach in her classroom. I think her comment here provides a compelling answer to Dr. Cassidy’s question:
The brain listens differently when stories are involved, and because of that, storytelling can be one of the most effective ways to teach in the classroom, regardless of your field. When a story is told, it creates an actually emotional imprint on the student that they retain outside of class. For example, I could tell my class that the definition of bootstrapping is to get oneself out of a situation using existing resources or being very frugal. Or I could tell them the story of the guys from Life is Good who lived and sold t-shirts out of their van for years before making it big. They laugh at the idea, they can relate, and then they imprint on the feeling. The story helps them remember that the Life is Good guys are a great example of bootstrapping and they’ll take that lesson with them and remember it outside the classroom. (A. Broeren, personal communication, September 9, 2016)
If we want to grab the brain’s attention, we need to ask it to listen differently, perhaps with different intent. Dr. Cassidy (2012) similarly recommends stretching the brain when she discusses the use of everyday objects to relate to class content. This forces the brain to think about things in new ways and we know from Dr. Christy Price’s (2013) 20-Minute Mentor video that the brain is a “novelty seeker” (para. 2). Perhaps an object like a quarter or a candle can relate to the material you are discussing. Asking the brain to make new connections may make for improved content retention.
Stories and Cognition
Years ago, I read an article in a forum called, Ask the Cognitive Scientist. In this forum. Dr. Daniel Willingham answered a question about why stories were special in terms of cognition and how instructors could capitalize on such information. His response has stayed with me over the years:
Research from the last 30 years shows that stories are indeed special. Stories are easy to comprehend and easy to remember, and that’s true not just because people pay close attention to stories; there is something inherent in the story format that makes them easy to understand and remember. Psychologists have therefore referred to stories as “psychologically privileged,” meaning that our minds treat stories differently than other types of material. (Willingham, 2004, paras. 4-5)
Knowing that stories are “psychologically privileged,” consider ways to incorporate stories into your own teaching. What material needs to be remembered in your courses? Are there ways to use stories to make lessons stick?
Making it Personal
A few weeks ago, I discussed a Mentor Commons video about engagement by Dr. B. Jean Mandernach. In my article about this video, I shared the following quote and follow-up question:
Because of cell phones, students now carry more information in their pockets than is available in most university libraries. “At the click of a button, [students] could actually find any theory, term, concept of fact that they need” (Mandernach, 2017, para. 8). Knowing this, how can we inspire interest in material that students could learn by using their phones?
Mandernach’s (2017) answer to this question was simple: students want to hear our opinions and learn how our experiences relate to the course material. So, perhaps we could tell stories about our own experiences. Do you have personal stories you could share about the material you are teaching? I’m currently teaching a humanities class and I am really enjoying the opportunity to discuss my own experiences with students, such as touring the Dali Museum in Figueres, Spain; attending a Sunday service in a Unitarian church built by Frank Lloyd Wright; visiting a Maori marae in Waitangi New Zealand; and taking pictures of different sculptures in Budapest. I’m hopeful that these experiences help students with the course content and maybe even inspire them to dust off their passports.
As you consider how stories can help your students with content retention, think about ways to make those stories personal. If you have stories that have helped you master content or teach material, please feel free to share them with Excelsior faculty. I keep tossing around ideas for stories about APA formatting and thesis statement development. Stay tuned.