A few years ago, I was taking a Statistics class that was dreaded by most students in my graduate program. Upon starting, I discovered with pleasure that the instructor had introduced a new textbook, called An Adventure in Statistics: The Reality Enigma by Andy Field. The book followed a story-telling format and featured an outlandish science-fiction type plot, humor, colorful graphics, and comic-book snippets.

The merits of storytelling have been widely discussed, and that’s not what I want to talk about here. Rather, I’d like to highlight a specific element that I believe made a great contribution to the book’s instructional value: most of the content is presented through the dialogue between the main character, Zach, who needs to learn statistics, and various mentors, in particular one professor-turned-cat. The mentors guide Zach through his learning journey by explaining concepts, answering his queries, and challenging him with thought-provoking points. This makes the content more approachable and easier to understand as we, the students, struggle, ask questions, and learn together with Zach.

I believe that using dialogues—in particular of the student-tutor type—instead of monologues in instructional materials is an underutilized method of making difficult concepts more accessible. It is not a topic that has been researched much, but I did encounter a few interesting references.

One term that is often used to refer to this type of learning—by observing others learn—is “vicarious learning”. It was introduced in the 1960’s by Bandura, who showed that learning can happen through observing others’ behavior. Later, it was also used to talk about learning through the experiences of others or through storytelling (Roberts, 2010).

I was interested specifically in the effectiveness of student-tutor dialogue, which is a type of vicarious learning, and I found two articles that presented research on this topic.

Muller, Sharma, Eklund, and Reiman (2007) used instructional videos on quantum mechanics topics for second year physics students. In one condition, the video was a regular presentation of the material. In the other, the video was a semi-authentic dialogue between a student and a tutor, and incorporated alternative conceptions that physics students might hold, in combination with Socratic dialogue. The authors found significantly better outcomes on the post-test for the dialogue treatment.

Chi, Kang, and Yaghmourian (2017) conducted two studies that also featured physics concepts. They compared the effects of student-tutor dialogue videos versus lecture-style monologue videos, using the same tutors and the same supporting multimedia presentations. They, too, found increased learning for the students who watched the dialogue videos. They also found that students who watched the dialogue videos seemed to engage more in solving problems, generating substantive comments, and interacting constructively with their peers. The researchers offered some possible explanations for why this was the case: the incorrect statements and questions of the tutee triggered a more active engagement; tutees can serve as a model of learning; tutees make errors which are followed by tutor feedback – what they call “conflict episodes” that may motivate students to try harder.

Creating tutorial dialogue videos is time consuming and more difficult than making regular lectures. So, it is certainly not practical to use them on a large scale. However, it may be worth considering them for those areas where students struggle a lot.

Let us know if you’ve tried vicarious learning in any shape or form!


Bandura A, Ross D, Ross S (1963) Vicarious reinforcement and imitative learning. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 67(6): 601–607.

Chi, M. T., Kang, S., & Yaghmourian, D. L. (2017). Why students learn more from dialogue- than monologue-videos: Analyses of peer interactions. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 26(1), 10-50.

Muller, D. A., Sharma, M. D., Eklund, J., & Reimann, P. (2007). Conceptual change through vicarious learning in an authentic physics setting. Instructional Science, 35(6), 519–533. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41953754

Roberts, D. (2010). Vicarious learning: A review of the literature. Nurse Education in Practice, 10(1), 13-16.

Storytelling is a fundamental part of human culture. With the use of narrative and world building in an educational setting, we can imagine ourselves as one of the characters and better engage with the material at hand. In distance education, these tools can be powerful allies made stronger with a multimedia approach. In a typical lecture scenario, students are presented information in the form of topics and relationships, specific ideas and often jargon. All these things are a necessary part of learning and provide a framework for the course’s content as well as preparing them for the application of the material. But by using storytelling as a tool, student engagement can be brought to higher levels and create memorable experiences.

A great example of the storytelling approach is Rorie Solberg’s PS 110: Governing after the Zombie Apocalypse. The course deals with the rebuilding of government after a fictional zombie apocalypse. Her course might be a bit too relevant to modern society during a pandemic, as it takes a closer look at the effects of a global health crisis. The students of PS 110 have been ‘selected’ as delegates to a constitutional convention. They represent one of the four territories standing in the place of the former United States, and each student faces the challenge of writing a new constitution, under which a new democracy will be built. The duty of the students is to create the outlines of a new government, accounting for the new needs of the people in this post-apocalyptic environment and, should they find it necessary, addressing the shortcomings of previous governments from around the world. The class begins with the first meeting of the delegates and at no point is the fourth wall broken.

Leveraging multiple forms of media can reinforce the verisimilitude of these stories and provide different avenues for student engagement. Rorie’s course is making full use of what Ecampus’ Multimedia Team has to offer with press release designs, audio broadcasts, animation and an interactive voting simulator.

The audio broadcasts, released by “PZA News” after the collapse of mainstream media outlets, are made to sound like the work of amateur Ham Radio operators doing their best to keep their communities informed. With a distinct taste of Orson Wells’ “War of the Worlds” radio play, these broadcasts feature our very own Warren Blyth as not one or two, but all of the eleven different characters and voices featured therein. The broadcasts cover local issues, giving insight to how societies and communities have changed in light of a global disaster. By tackling social issues as well, these fictional news broadcasts provide a more complete context to the decisions these students will eventually make in drafting their constitutions. They must consider any long reaching effects of their specific wordings and how their policies may affect disadvantaged groups, even unintentionally. Rorie’s course goes beyond being placed into a simple setting and focuses on how her fictional characters would interact with each other and their environments.

In addition to audio there are written publications. While reading is typical in any class, written press releases allow students to read more stories taking place in their post-apocalyptic society. Multiple forms of media for news releases reinforces the world building aspect and contributes to a multi-dimensional, fleshed out feel to the course’s setting. An animation, depicting the daily life of the surviving population is also being developed for this course. This is another fun and engaging way to bring the class materials alive. What better way for students to understand their roles than to see for themselves how their constituents live.

Storytelling and world building can be powerful tools for both student engagement and learning that can create memorable experiences. Enriching stories with multimedia creates an immersive experience that entertains as much as it educates. Rorie’s PS 110 is an excellent example of storytelling, world building and leveraging media assets to enhance immersion.

Author: Matt Djubasak