After several years in the classroom, Washington and Lee University psychology professor Dan Johnson had begun noticing an interesting trend in his students' answers on exams. Whenever he used a story in class to illustrate an abstract concept, those same stories later showed up fairly often in the students’ essays.
"Maybe six weeks had gone by between my telling a story and when students had used it in a essay," Johnson said. "I hadn't told the story again. But they were retelling it to help them think through that concept."
So Johnson decided to test a hypothesis about memory and abstract concepts. His hunch is that having students create what he calls a "nano-narrative" — a two- or three-sentence story — can improve their ability to remember the concepts that they were being taught.
This summer, Johnson and three W&L senior psychology majors — Brandie Huffman of Warrenton, Va., Meredith Roberts of Sequim, Wash., and Eric Shuman of Black Mountain, N.C. — conducted a series of experiments in the study, titled "Imagining the Abstract: Using a Brief Narrative as a Memory Aid."
"Our hypothesis is that generating a very brief narrative about the concepts in something new you're trying to learn can help clarify those concepts, and will create an anchor in memory that you can then go back to," Johnson said. "In the future, when you're trying to recall these concepts again, you have this story in mind that you can follow along. As you follow that story along, those concepts come to life for you, and, therefore, should provide better learning in the long term.”
Through both in-person and on-line experiments, the team compared the subjects' ability to recall abstract concepts using different techniques. They asked one group to link the concept to a single image, while they told two other groups to create these nano-narratives. There was a difference between the narratives, too. While one group wrote a general story to illustrate the concept, members of the other group made themselves the protagonists of these "self-relevant" narratives.
"Our hypothesis is that the most potent form of these stories will be the self-relevant narratives," said Johnson. "Prior research suggests that integrating a concept with your own self-knowledge is really the most effective way for you to remember a concept."
Johnson notes that it has long been clear that imagery is intimately tied to memory. But using imagery to remember something abstract is another matter, since such concepts do not have easily accessible images. If you want to remember the word "boat," it's fairly easy to close your eyes and form a mental image of a boat, Johnson explained.
"If I were to say close your eyes and come up with an image of the word 'nonsense,' that won't be as easy," he said. The narrative may provide the bridge between abstracts concepts and imagery — the best stories automatically generate imagery.
In the early stages of the study, the team used individual words. Some of those words were concrete, like “boat,” and others abstract, like “nonsense.” They showed subjects a series of words on a computer screen, one at a time, and the nano-narrative groups composed a brief story for each word that would help them remember it later.
"These are very brief but they need to be a microcosm of a real narrative," said Johnson. "It should have a beginning, middle and end. The most important thing is for it to include vivid imagery."
Johnson noted that the team told those subjects who put themselves in the story to provide as many idiosyncratic details as possible. Anchoring a concept in your own meaningful knowledge, he said, will be more durable in the long run. That's why some students who have trouble remembering, say, the dates on a history test may have no trouble reciting the number of triple-doubles Lebron James had last season. "It's a matter of what's relevant to them," said Johnson.
After testing subjects on the concrete and abstract words, the study moved to more complex material by having subjects read through passages of textbook-like material that explain a concept and then build a story around it. One example discussed how and why bats hang upside down.
"So the concept here is that, well, it's easier to take up flight if you hang from the ceiling and just drop, as opposed to having to generate the speed to take off from the ground," Johnson said. "Our hope is that by telling yourself a brief story — a story that preferably includes you as the main character — that demonstrates that this concept will ultimately be the most effective way for you to understand the concept and to retain that understanding over time."
There is, Johnson admits, a key issue to overcome. If someone does not understand a concept to begin with, then it will be hard to generate a narrative that demonstrates that concept. However, this issue is not unique to the nano-narrative technique, but rather any memory technique requires an understanding of the concept to work.
"While the research is in its early stages, we were able to demonstrate that generating nano-narratives improved recall for abstract, textbook-like material when subjects were tested seven to 10 days after generating their nano-narratives compared with control conditions," Johnson said. "I think we have been able to show experimentally what my students have been demonstrating for me when they bring these stories back up on an exam. There is something about these brief narratives that sticks. It's not a fleeting thing, either. It really sticks in memory."
Although one of Johnson's primary interests is how college students might improve their capacity to remember these concepts, he would like to think that it would be something that might benefit anybody.
"Memory is a prerequisite for applied learning,” he said. “If we can show that using these nano-narratives works in memory, great. That should come first. Then maybe we can show it as it's applied to other domains."
Although the early results were promising, Johnson said that many unanswered questions remain. In addition, the sample size (15 to 25 in each condition) was small, and that means caution is warranted. "I'm not close to recommending it to my students as a study strategy yet," he said. "But we will continue to pursue this area."
Jeffery G. Hanna
Executive Director of Communications and Public Affairs