2 Learner Stories and the Design of Authentic Instruction

Richard Goldsworthy and Peter C. Honebein

This article was originally published in the July-August 2010 issue of EDUCATIONAL TECHNOLOGY, p. 27-33.

A primary goal of teaching, the authors state, is to help learners get their stories straight. To accomplish this, instructional designers set the story straight by enhancing a story’s authenticity to create what the authors call an “ah ha” moment rather than a “that’s horsepuckey” moment. Designers must offer opportunities for individuals to engage in learning opportunities in ways that enable them to re-frame their own stories to be more viable and coherent than those which were previously told. To that end, this article offers designers principles for increasing the authenticity of key story elements: story arcs, plot events, characters, tasks, and environments. These principles have a vital influence on whether designed learning experiences have any impact on our learners’ stories and, by extension, learner performance.


Understanding is the outcome of organizing and contextualizing essentially contestable, incompletely verifiable propositions in a disciplined way. One of our principal means for doing so is through narrative: by telling a story of what something is ‘about.’ But as Kierkegaard had made clear many years before, telling stories in order to understand is no mere enrichment of the mind: without them we are, to use his phrase, reduced to fear and trembling. (Bruner, 1996, p. 90)

Stories. People live and act by them because humans are storied creatures. Bruner (1985, 1990) has used the metaphor of storycraft to describe the interpretive activity of meaning making: learning is the ongoing process of maintaining a coherent story in our minds.

The drive to learn is the drive to get the story right. A primary goal of teaching is, in essence, to help learners get their stories straight, to get them “right.” The constant recrafting of our stories is not driven toward some sort of objective Platonic truth nor is it solipsistic. The stories we tell ourselves and others are not told and retold in a vacuum. They cannot be compared to some unchanging, predefined ideal, and they also cannot be held, solely, to criterion of internal consistency. Rather, our stories mold, and are molded by, our experiences. Getting the story right, therefore, means that our learners’ stories are viable (von Glasersfeld, 1989, 1993, 1995) and allow them to act effectively in the world. That’s a good thing: it means if our learners, and we educators for that matter, can change our stories, we can learn!

So how does this learning thing happen? As people engage in new experiences, “trouble” may arise when an experience does not fit their current story frame­work-their current understanding. If everything our learners experience is felt to be passe, “been there, done that,” then it all just fits their story-there is no impetus to change. For learning to occur, we need to cause some trouble. From an instructional design perspective, trouble, and our causing thereof, is also Savery and Duffy’s (1996) “puzzlement” or, as applied more broadly to cultural changes, Kuhn’s (1962) “anomalies” and crises in scientific inquiry. Whatever the name, the experience is one of dissonance which, to borrow from Piaget, the learners can address by re­crafting their story so that it accommodates the new experience or by re-envisioning the experience such that it is more readily assimilated within the story (Piaget, 1969). The most extreme reactions our learners may have to the trouble we cause may very well be the “ah hah” moment, on the one hand, or the “that’s horsepuckey” moment, on the other. Which it is depends greatly on how well we design our trouble­causing experiences with and for them.

For an instructional effort to be effective, we would argue it must offer opportunities for individuals to engage in learning opportunities in ways that enable them to re-frame their own stories to be more viable and coherent than those which were previously told, that is, more effective for engaging in activities of relevance to the learners. This viability has to be from both our perspective as well as theirs. We want our learners to primarily accommodate our stories, our instructional goals and activities, rather than assimilate them. To do that, we have to be responsive to our learners’ stories. We know what we want them to do, but to get them to do it involves understanding them. In the process of understanding them, that is, understanding their stories, their ways of understanding their worlds, we are also quite likely to change what we thought we want­ed them to do: stories are messy–and fun!–that way.

Educators and instructional designers serve as helpful editors or, in Bruner’s phrase, “provisional amanuenses.” They seek to understand and question learners’ stories, help learners find potential avenues of exploration, and guide them away from less viable plotlines. In designing learning experiences, we act as would-be assistant story editors, trying to understand the stories of those for whom the learning and perform­ance support experiences are destined. Story editors respond to, modify, and are modified by, the stories with which they are working. Story editors never start with a blank slate: they start with a story, change in response to it, and seek to change it, hopefully for the better. To the extent possible, such editors should strive to be co-intentional with members of the target audience (Freire, 1970). This means they seek to under­stand the learners’ stories, determine how their own stories may link with those, identify where points of trouble may occur, explore how stories might be perturbed to cohere with the broader communities of practice within which individuals participate, and synthesize how the individual’s story might make sense and enrich the broader community.

This perspective suggests implications for all aspects of teaching and learning activities. In this article, we discuss its implications for the design of instructional media. If we are all storied creatures, then we will be more likely to resonate with instructional media and environments that cohere with our personal stories, and that offer points of intersection between the world of the to-be-learned and the world of the learners.

The simple fact of the matter is that our instructional media always convey a story to learners, regardless of whether designers intend it to or not. An encounter with instruction is a story-construction opportunity. Learners will make sense of the experience, and tell their own stories of that experience to themselves and to others: ah hah or horsepuckey, or somewhere in between. It seems to us it would be better if we paid more attention to how our narrative threads are perceived, taken up, modified, and retold as a result of experiencing our media. We want the stories told about our stuff to be good ones but, more importantly, in the end, the stories our learners’ tell, and the behaviors they engage in based on these stories, determine whether we have been successful in accomplishing the goals.

Since we clearly can’t ignore stories, we try to design learning experiences that tie into learner experi­ence. We make our stories connect with learner stories. So, what makes for a good learning story, and how can we include procedures in our design processes that take into account learners’ stories? Just as a good novel is composed of multiple layers, from overarching plot to individual micro-events, stories permeate our instruc­tional media at multiple levels. Thus, it seems important that we integrate our stories across these levels. It also seems reasonable that for stories to connect with learners, they should be authentic (Barab & Duffy, 2000; Bruner, 1996; Honebein, Duffy, & Fishman, 1993; Resnick, 1987): learners should perceive them as reasonably similar to their own experience, and subject matter experts should perceive them as reason­ably similar to the actual performance situation.

To explore the role of stories in instructional design, we will first briefly discuss some of the ways our designs may become storied. We will then discuss the role of authenticity in such storied instruction. Our experiences integrating stories into a variety of learning experiences, from Web-based activities for a comprehensive sexuality education curriculum among middle schools to a highly-interactive, case-based Web-course to improve patient-physician interactions related to substance use disorders, form the content backbone of this article. Key examples will be drawn from our work in producing a linear video targeting pressure ulcer prevention among home health aides.

Storied Instruction: From Story Arc to Plot Events

Narrative elements may permeate the instructional story we tell, both at the macro (overarching plot) or micro (individual story event) levels. Just as a novel has an overarching plot, a tone and tenor, and individual events, so too does our instruction have a whole and its constituent parts. These elements cohere to form a holistically rich and integrated effort. The whole and its parts can be thought of as our instructional effort’s story arc and its plot events (see Table 1). Let’s explore these in relation to an instructional video, Every Square Inch (ESI), developed through a grant from the National Institutes of Health, to increase adoption of pressure ulcer prevention behaviors in home health care.

Story Arc

A story arc is an extended or continuing storyline in which the storyteller effects change in a character. The key principles that a designer embeds in a story arc are problem, background information, and self-direction.

In the story developed for the Every Square Inch effort, the primary character, Lorraine, is new to home health care provision. Early in the story, Lorraine expresses concern about her lack of knowledge concerning pres­sure ulcers and her lack of confidence in her ability to engage appropriately in pressure ulcer prevention–the problem. These doubts are sharpened by her planned near-term visit to a client whom she thinks might be at risk for pressure ulcers. She really isn’t sure what to do about it. The story unfolds as she embarks on a quest to learn more about pressure ulcer preventive care.

Lorraine is supported in her quest with the presenta­tion of background information designed to provide a common language and a common understanding of pressure ulcer formation and risk. Pressure ulcer preven­tion activities are modeled for her by more advanced peers as she continues to ask questions about her learn­ing and summarize her understanding (see Figure 1). Such modeling, by equal and more advanced peers as well as by more senior individuals, has been found to be an effective strategy from the social learning theory perspective (Bandura, 1977, 1986; Bruner, 1990).

In addition to the more apparent opportunities to give pressure ulcer information provision and skills modeling instructional activities meaning by embedding them within a cohesive story, the overall story affords several important opportunities for modeling self-direction, which reflects more general learning and information­seeking skills. For example, as noted previously, the character is portrayed asking questions, seeking out experts and more advanced peers, and visiting clients in the company of these more skilled individuals.

For this effort, the particular experts and more advanced peers were selected as models based on the results of normative influence research among home health aides. This research showed that home health aides are most likely to be responsive to employers, supervisors, and experts; thus, each of these archetypal individuals plays a role in the video. The primary char­acter was placed within a cohort of similar and slightly more advanced peers in order to depict collaborative learning, make available additional sources of informa­tion, and, to some extent, to provide comic relief.

Plot Events

At the micro level, narrative is integrated through informative, modeling, and psychosocial plot events. Informative plot events provide factual information about pressure ulcers and pressure ulcer preventive care. This information is usually set up by someone portrayed in the narrative as an expert, often reinforced with animations or illustrations, and then summarized by the lead character as she solidifies her learning.

Modeling plot events are used to depict the standard practices, the “how to” of pressure ulcer prevention. These plot events usually involve the main character and one or more peers going on a “field trip” to watch other colleagues engage in the practices (see Figure 2). Skills are modeled and appropriate behaviors are rein­forced. Such reinforcement of skill utilization is one of the factors that sets vicarious experience apart from sim­ple skill modeling (Bandura, 1977). The learner views not only correct use of skills but sees positive outcomes associated with engagement in those skills. This depic­tion of positive reinforcement leads to the third type of plot event utilized in designing the instructional materials: psychosocial plot events.

Psychosocial plot events address target belief objectives by having characters directly discuss their beliefs, by reinforcing positive beliefs, and by redressing negative beliefs. Such incorporation occurs in two ways, through belief testimonials and belief narratives. For us, belief testimonials occur outside the main story line, although that need not always be the case. They are presented at the beginning of modules and directly address one or more beliefs. They are very short, consisting of a few sentences delivered by a client, care provider, or supervisor from the main story (see Figure 3). Three example testimonials are:


I tell all my aides that preventing pressure ulcers is a standard practice, a part of our comprehensive care.


Having an uncooperative patient, or family for that matter, ah, that makes it really hard-or so I thought. Turns out that in most cases I just need to explain why

it’s so important. Sometimes it takes a little extra effort but I’m pretty good at helping them understand.


My last aide-she was new-and she was all nervous, you could tell. She didn’t want to check things out. I think she thought she might be “invading my privacy”-hah, no way, I just wanted to stay healthy!

Belief narratives involve characters-raising, rei nforc­i ng, and addressing them throughout the story line. The beliefs integrated in the present effort, identified through the application of reasoned action theory, include avoiding trouble with the state, reducing long-term consequences, showing compassion, and fostering the perception that the aid is providing comprehensive care.

Overall, the story arc and the individual plot events ground the instructional objectives and strategies within a cohesive and meaningful framework. This use of narrative media appears to align well with perspectives that conceive of understanding as a dynamic, construc­tive activity and individuals as active interpreters of their own past and present experiences. For instruction­al media, in particular, care must be given to the construction of the story. A story may make for a terrific read–it’s engaging!–which is, in and of itself, important. However, whether an individual resonates with a story, identifies herself in that story, has her story troubled by it, or sees situations similar to her own in that story, is as important as engagement in terms of learning, skills transfer, and belief change. We believe the authenticity of our stories is significantly related to whether learners “get” them, and it is to this concept that we now turn in order to better understand how we can make our stories more meaningful to our learners.


Stories, according to Bruner, “are judged on the basis of their verisimilitude or ‘lifelikeness”‘ (1996, p. 122). The concept of authenticity, central to some types of stories, and certainly to many constructivist learning and instructional theories and strategies, may play an important role in engagement, learning, and transfer (Barab & Duffy, 2000; Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989; Grabinger, 1996; Honebein et al., 1993; Resnick, 1987; Winn, 1990). Authenticity is generally ill-defined in the literature, often simply referenced as the need for activities from the “real world” (Resnick, 1987) or anchored in “real uses” (Barab & Duffy, 2000), and, in the end, what it means to be authentic is as context-derived as any other construction (Petraglia, 1998). Here, we define “authenticity” in a practical sense using two criteria: first, the degree of similarity between a portrayal of a particular person, place, or event and the actual referent being so portrayed; second, the extent to which people experiencing the person, place, or event portrayed are able to engage the world differently after the experience.

The similarity criterion is in the eye of the beholder. The condition of authenticity is determined by the indi­vidual experiencing the portrayal. Given this definition, authenticity is “a judgment, a decision made on the part of the learner constrained by the sociocultural matrix within which he or she operates” (Petraglia, 1998). A designer can enhance this type of authenticity by involv­ing members of the target audience, both novice and experienced, in the content generation and design phases of development. Designers can then formatively and summatively test this criterion by asking individuals how realistic a portrayal is, whether the problems are similar to those they experience or expect to experi­ence, and so forth. It should be noted that sometimes an intended learner cannot know whether certain aspects of a situation are authentic. They often have no basis for such a determination, and, in such cases, any formative results would need to be interpreted cautiously.

The impact criterion for authenticity is a learner’s abil­ity to respond to new, “real-world,” experiences using perspectives, information, and skills that the learner pre­viously encountered vicariously through our learning experiences. This latter criterion for authenticity is close­ly related to transfer or, less accurately, generalizability. Are the story elements in a learning experience similar enough to the conditions in the target environment to enable performance? This second criterion is akin to Petraglia’s (and most instructional designers) use of authenticity to describe the similarity between what happens in educational environments, particularly schools, and some representative “real world” (1998). It is also the criterion most commonly called upon when criticizing typical educational settings (e.g., Brown et al., 1989; Honebein et al., 1993; Resnick, 1987). This criterion is formatively testable by having those actually involved in real-world performance gauge the verisimil­itude of the vicarious experiences. The criterion may also be tested through in situ performance observation and debriefing of learners as they move toward real-world performance. Using both of these criteria, the design effort should seek to be authentic in the portrayal of characters, the depiction of tasks, and the representation of environments (see Table 2).

Authentic Portrayal of Characters

The authentic portrayal of characters is comprised of two factors, expectant authenticity and reflective authenticity. Expectant authenticity is the extent to which the characters portrayed act in ways that the viewers expect them to act, given the viewers’ under­standing of the situations in which the portrayed actions are taking place. Reflective authenticity is the extent to which the viewers are able to see themselves in the characteristics and actions of the portrayed character(s).

These criteria for character authenticity may facilitate learning. Expectant authenticity accomplishes this through suspension of disbelief and acceptance of the portrayed situations. Reflective authenticity does this through identification with a character or character(s): “they act like me.” Disruptions in these can also be learning moments. If a character generally acts in ways the viewer expects that character to act, then when that character acts in ways other than expected, the viewer will be surprised or troubled.

This perturbation can take one of two directions. First, the disruption leads to changes in learner expec­tations about how characters “like me” respond in specific situations. Second, it leads the learner to decide that the character really isn’t “like me,” and identifica­tion with the character is lessened. Both of these are learning outcomes, but the former is about changing one’s conceptions about “me and my role in the world,” while the latter is about changing one’s interpretation of what is immediately being experienced. Either can be useful. However, the former, involving re-conception of self, is arguably what is sought through most instruc­tion. A potential third criterion for authentic character portrayal is the extent to which the characters behave in ways that are similar to the ways novices would act in real-world situations related to the portrayed activities and the ways experts would so act.

The ESI project focused on ensuring that the char­acters were authentic in three ways. First were personal characteristics: Do characters appear similar to the target audience members? Second were their beliefs: Do characters exhibit the types of beliefs that target audience members and more advanced peers and experts exhibit? And third were their general activities: Do characters behave in ways that target audience members and experts perceive as authentic? These characteristics, beliefs, and activities were informed by interviews with target audience members and experts, research on beliefs, and formative evaluation of early scripts and casting.

There are several characters in the ESI project. There is the narrator, who is portrayed as an expert and whose role is to frame the entire story. There is the protagonist, whose role is to learn about pressure ulcers and who is depicted as a typical newcomer to home healthcare. There is a cohort of peers of relatively the same compe­tence as the protagonist but who vary by characteristics and attitudes. There is a set of more advanced peers, typically cast as supervisory nurses and more experi­enced aides, who model skills. And there is a primary expert whose role is to serve as the main mentor in the protagonist’s quest for understanding. For this latter role, the script relied primarily on the highest correlated normative influence, a supervisor. All characters were scripted and cast for verisimilitude to home health and pressure ulcer preventive care situations.

Authentic Depiction of Tasks

The authentic depiction of tasks is also comprised of three factors: similarity, visioning, and actuality. Similarity means that the tasks portrayed are similar to tasks that viewers would expect to occur in the lives of those depicted; it is indicative of a story’s internal consistency as considered from the perspective of the learner. Visioning means that target audience members see themselves participating in the tasks; it is indicative of the degree to which a learner identifies with the activities in the story. Actuality is the extent to which the tasks portrayed are similar to those that a learner would be expected to perform in the setting of actual performance.

For the ESI project, task authenticity was informed by interviews with target audience members and experts, and by formative evaluation of the emerging tasks and scripts. Several distinct task types were included, which map to the plot events we discussed earlier: learn­ing/information gathering tasks, such as presentations, group learning efforts, and one-on-one mentoring; deci­sion-making/attitude change tasks, such as weighing the pros and cons of engaging in a behavior and deciding on a plan of action; and performance tasks, such as examining client skin for signs of pressure ulcer forma­tion in a variety of settings, or properly placing and turn­ing diverse clients in different settings.

Authentic Representation of Environments

The authentic representation of environments has factors similar to the other two types of authenticity, internal consistency, external consistency, and envi­ronmental consistency. First, there is the internal con­sistency. From the perspective of the learner, is the set­ting in which characters interact and events occur consistent with settings in which the learner would expect such people and events to be located? Second, there is external consistency: Is the environment por­trayed consistent with the environment in which the learner operates? Similar to character inconsistencies, environmental inconsistencies can be dismissed as unrealistic or can become learning moments. For example, resources portrayed in the media environment that are not available in the lived-experiences of the learners may be sought and incorporated into the real­life environment. Third, there is environmental consis­tency, which, from the perspective of practitioners, reflects how well the portrayed environment meshes with the actual environment of intended performance.

For ESI, environmental authenticity was informed by site visits, interviews, and evaluation of the proposed environments and locations by target audience mem­bers and advanced practitioners. Several locations were selected, both for their authenticity to the types of settings in which pressure ulcer prevention education and actual performance occurs and for the variation in those settings. As such, scenes are depicted in presentation rooms, conference rooms, around lunch tables, in hospitals, and in homes.


Our learners live and learn by the stories they tell themselves and others. There is simply no escaping that we are all story bound. The stories our instructional efforts tell, and how well connected these stories are to the “living stories” of our learners, can have a vital influence on whether our designed learning experiences have any impact on our learners’ stories and, by exten­sion, learner performance. Recent research by Green and colleagues (Green, 2006; Green & Brock, 2000) suggests, as we have strongly argued here, that stories have value beyond modeling, engagement, or the mere dressing up of our instructional efforts: ” … to the extent that individuals are absorbed into a story or transported into a narrative world, they may show effects of the story on their real-world beliefs” (Green & Brock, 2000, p. 701 ). They call this potential transportation. When participants are transported into a story-driven world, the viewed experiences may become vicarious experi­ences, as Bandura (1977, 1986) demonstrated across multiple efforts. If we frame the story of our instruction and embed narrative threads within it, we may, if done well, essentially get these vicarious experiences for free.

We have found that stories, designed as we suggest in this article, are quite effective and have strong audience appeal. However, the downside to stories is their effi­ciency (Reigeluth, 1983). Efficiency is a measure of the time or cost to develop instruction, including the ability to “scale” instruction to a broader audience. Because we designed the ESI story specifically for direct care workers and aides, Registered Nurses (RNs) who have taken the course perceive that the content is “beneath them” and react less positively to the course, even though the course content is appropriate for RNs. Thus, the efficiency of story-based instructional strategies is diminished. To increase adoption of the instruction by RNs, designers might have to create a unique story for RNs or other target audience, which increases costs. Of course, this is not a problem with storied instruction per se but a problem with any instructional design effort that is tailored to a particular audience. The more responsive we are to the needs of a particular group, the less likely our instruction will be generalizable to other groups. Not only do the RNs have different stories, but embed­ded in that notion is the simple fact that they have distinct learning and performance support needs. The hard task for designers is to strike a balance, given the targeted objectives of a project, between responsiveness to a particular audience and accessibility across audi­ences: can one story fit all, that is, are the audiences “similar enough” that a single set of media with multiple storylines suffice, or must multiple stories be developed for different audiences? Or, more broadly, can stories designed specifically for one audience be framed, during use, to be useful to other audiences, e.g., what happens to our RNs experience if we frame the educa­tional experience in terms of understanding what their aides do and how those aides interact with the world? Stories afford these opportunities too.

In Honebein and Goldsworthy (2009), we argued that instructional designers do what we do based on our own stories and we suggested ways to perturb those stories. Doing this improves our instructional design efforts: cause ourselves some trouble and we just might learn some­thing! Here, we have presented a different take on the same epistemological approach: How do we design learning experiences that are true to our goals, respectful of and responsive to learners’ stories, cause trouble for them, and, in the end, lead to fewer “horsepuckey” responses and more “ah hah” moments? Whether we have been successful in making the case for why we should do this will be largely determined by whether you accommodate or assimilate what we’ve had to say, which itself it largely determined by how well we have told our story. But, if we have, then perhaps our learners will be less frequently reduced to fear and trembling, or worse, boredom and disinterest, and will more often experience engagement and growth … and tell good stories about our instruction, too, which is always nice!



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Richard Goldsworthy is CEO and Director of Research and Development at The Academic Edge, Inc., a Bloomington, Indiana-based instructional design studio (e-mail: rick@academicedge.com). Peter C. Honebein is a Research Scientist with The Academic Edge. He is also an adjunct professor at Indiana University and at the University of Nevada, Reno, and a principal with Customer Performance Group, LLC (e-mail: peter@academicedge.com).




Narrative in Instructional Design Copyright © 2018 by Richard Goldsworthy and Peter C. Honebein. All Rights Reserved.

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