Study Hacks Blog Decoding Patterns of Success

Monday Master Class: The Story Telling Method

September 1st, 2008 · 21 comments

The Study Time Paradox

Tower Room

A common complaint I hear goes something like this: “I studied for hours and hours, reviewing every practice problem I could find, or re-reading every assignment and all my notes, and then, when I sat down for the test, I had no idea how to answer the questions!”

I call this the Study Time Paradox because no matter how hard these students study, their grades don’t seem to improve. In this post, I want to describe a solution to this problem; a simple hack that requires 5 – 10 extra minutes a day but can produce significantly better grades.

Story Time

Lurking behind the Study Time Paradox is the following truth: there’s a difference between knowing information and understanding concepts. This should sound familiar. This is the same observation that motivates the use of question/evidence/conclusion note-taking and quiz-and-recall test review instead of transcription and rote memorization. (See here and here for more on the Study Hacks approach to note-taking and exam prep, respectively.)

The piece of advice presented here, which I call the Story Telling Method, is a complement to these strategies. It can be described as follows:

  • After each class, tell a “story” about the material covered—a five minute summary of the concepts that drove the lecture.
  • Don’t bother writing it down. Instead, just say it to yourself while walking to your next class. Treat it like you’re a literary agent or movie producer pitching the lecture at an important meeting.
  • Cover the big picture flow of ideas, not the small details. Answer the question “why was this lecture important?”, not all the information it contained. Play up the flashy or unexpected.

For example, after an Art History lecture, you might tell the story of early renaissance artists clashing in Italy, and how and why Cimabue and Gitto—the superstars of their era—were able to break out. You can do the same for technical material. After a calculus course, for example, you could talk about what problem a derivative solves and how integration extends the idea to do something even cooler. You don’t need to review the chain rule, instead explain why the hell someone would want to know the slope at a point on a curve.

Constructing a Framework

The Story Telling Method has an important benefit: it takes the large volume of information you just received and organizes it within a coherent framework. Not surprisingly, this makes it much easier to retain this information. Later, when you approach exam studying, having this narrative framework reduces review to a simple task. By contrast, if you approach studying with just a large pile of notes — even if they are taken carefully in the question/evidence/conclusion format — you might have some long nights ahead of you.

The Rise of the Mini-Hack

I call this type of advice a “mini-hack” because it’s a small thing that you can easily integrate into your existing schedule; it’s something you do between classes, not a big new commitment. At the same time, however, it can generate a big boost in your performance. I’m fascinated by this type of advice as I think there is great potential in replacing major habit changes with a constantly evolving arsenal of small little tricks. Expect to hear more of this style of tips in the future. And as always, if you give this strategy a whirl, let me know how it goes.

21 thoughts on “Monday Master Class: The Story Telling Method

  1. Daniel says:

    This could also apply to general study techniques. It’s always better to explain a concept to someone else instead of just reviewing it yourself. In high school, there isn’t enough time between classes for this. But this is a much better than the current accepted standards of “rote review”. This should be the default study method of high school students except in written form.

  2. Keshia says:

    THANK-YOU
    As soon as I read the first few lines…I realized that was me. This article is going to help me a lot in my studies.

  3. Susan says:

    I bought your book today (the one with the red cover)!

  4. Kate says:

    Great advice Cal. I find that re-writing my notes after a single lecture helps to group main ideas and important facts that the professor outlined, but may not have directly said.

  5. allie says:

    Cal, I’ve never done what you’ve suggested above …it never even occured to me. While I’m walking from class to class I’m usually thinking about whats for dinner or talking with someone. But just by reading this and understanding the logic behind this I can tell its going to work (at least for me). But I can see it being one of those things that would be easy to forget to do…so you would HAVE to do a 30 day trial or something like that just so that you wouldn’t forget it.

  6. Andrew Duryea says:

    Cal, this will work great for me coming out of business meetings, especially on complex projects. I’m liking a lot of your articles for modified use in corporate business life.

  7. Johann says:

    It is a very common myth in college that only if you study extremely hard and work all day and night you can consider yourself a successful student.
    One reason why the story telling method is so little known may be because it is fairly simple and really somewhat easy-going and this contradicts the myth that studying must be hard.

  8. Study Hacks says:

    This should be the default study method of high school students

    An interesting thought experiment: what would happen if at the end of every high school class period, each student, in order to leave the classroom, had to tell a 3 – 5 story about what they had just heard. I wonder if the test scores would jump significantly.

    Great advice Cal. I find that re-writing my notes after a single lecture helps to group main ideas and important facts that the professor outlined

    Re-writing notes, as you note, work well too. Talking out loud is less time consuming, however, making it more attractive to some.

    But I can see it being one of those things that would be easy to forget to do…so you would HAVE to do a 30 day trial or something like that just so that you wouldn’t forget it.

    Not a bad idea. Since you’re a student, however, instead of 30 day trial, do “first exam trial.” That is, try it in a class until your first exam in that class.

    Cal, this will work great for me coming out of business meetings, especially on complex projects.

    I never thought of its application to other spheres. Sounds like a cool extension.

    One reason why the story telling method is so little known may be because it is fairly simple and really somewhat easy-going and this contradicts the myth that studying must be hard.

    Well said. As I’ve talked about before, too many college students suffer under the myth of the genius or the grind. You either have to be Good Will Hunting or stay up all night.

  9. Jordan says:

    I’m going to try this. I do something similar and journal it. Normally I only have to go back and read some minor detail but the rest is re enforced in my thinking. Sometimes I visualize reading the journal itself.

  10. Rob says:

    This is also a great way to remember important conversations or meetings. Or just being able to shoot back at a client or co-worker what was just talked about. I bet they’d really get a kick out of it too!

  11. Study Hacks says:

    This is also a great way to remember important conversations or meetings.

    Definitely…

  12. Telling stories to ourselves or others is how we make sense of what’s happening around us. For example, my father and I were driving together in his beat up old Datsun ute when we said to me, “I just got a bad batch of petrol. I think I got it from the Vincentia gas station. Yep, and you know what there was a tanker there filling up the station. I bet it was churning up the tank I git some gunk in my fuel as a result.” This was the first time my dad had retold this incident and even though it was minor, he was making sense of what happened in the structure of a story.

  13. Mike Wagner says:

    What a wonderful post!

    This recommendation,”Treat it like you’re a literary agent or movie producer pitching the lecture at an important meeting,” reminds me some of what Luther said about learning.

    In order to learn something find 25 people to teach it to.

    Keep creating,
    Mike

  14. I use stories in class to help my students remember theories and the people behind them. The jelly bean story about Herzberg or the story behind motion studies and their 12 kids about the Gilbreths. It seems to help.

  15. Cherrichew says:

    Your friends might call you crazy for talking to yourself :P

  16. Shockwave says:

    I’ve been doing this since the beginning of this school year but just for vocab quizzes in my English class. I typically just write them down incorporating the words though, so it’s not exactly this. But I’ve consistently got either a perfect score or only missed a word or two. So much more efficient than flashcards or something. I didn’t even think of trying this for other subjects, I’m gonna have to test this out now.

  17. You actually make it appear really easy together with your presentation however I to find this topic to be actually something that I believe I might never understand. It kind of feels too complex and extremely extensive for me. I’m taking a look forward on your next publish, I will try to get the grasp of it!

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