EFFECTIVE LEARNING: USING STORY-TELLING AND CASE STUDIES

COMMENTS FROM RECENT PROJECT MANAGEMENT WORKSHOPS: 

"Anecdotes help make the information memorable."

"The case studies and group discussion are helpful."

"The case studies and speaker anecdotes were very helpful in communicating the various concepts."

"Stories and actual examples help in being engaged and apply the topics learned."

"More case studies!"

Story-telling and case studies can covert a dull lecture into an exciting and rewarding learning experience. As one attendee noted: “This was my first (professional) management class, the information was very helpful, and I learned a lot.”    

 

STORY TELLING

From the prehistoric cave paintings of Lascaux, France of nearly 20,000 years ago to the 21st century Internet, story-telling is ingrained into our desire to communicate. Today, we have an almost limitless ability to convey information, and, in some form, this ability has existed for tens of thousands of years.   However, writing has only existed for a bit more than 5000 years and written stories (as far as we know) for only about 4000 years.   Before the invention of writing, human memory was the only source of story-telling.   Learning was passed through the generations by example (case studies) and through the telling of stories.   Myths, ghost stories, adventures, and many other forms were the basis of this story-telling. Religion grew from stories of gods, devils, supreme beings, an afterlife, and damnation. These stories created beliefs that bound a group together eventually becoming a culture, an organized religion, or a society.   While we have a multitude of tools to tell stories today, the oral tradition is alive and well in all societies.  

Story-telling makes the conveying of learning and knowledge personal--translating the theoretical into something you can relate to.   The information is no longer: "how to develop a critical path chart", but "this is how you use the knowledge to construct a building."  Stories not only offer what went right, what went wrong, but also what you should take away from the experience.   Many people attending educational sessions add their own experiences to the learning process enhancing everyone’s knowledge.  This is the great benefit of the story-telling process.  

For example, a number of years ago, I was a speaker at a meeting at the World Bank in Washington, DC.   The University of Wisconsin was hired to provide training to the World Bank’s facilities staff, and as an instructor at Wisconsin Engineering Professional Development, I was asked to conduct a program.   Those attending worked in many nations around the world, often traveling for weeks at a time.   I spent a fair amount of  my session talking about the importance of communications and strongly advocated the use of laptops and cell phones while traveling and at job sites.  This seemed sensible (to me, anyway) and they appeared to be logical tools for design and construction facilities staff to use.     After I finished this portion of my presentation, one of the facilities managers raised his hand and pointed out a significant flaw in my argument.  “Howard, my territory is sub-Saharan Africa.”  Still not understanding, I looked confused and he explained:  “Often, I don’t have a source of electricity for days at a time.”   Finally, the light bulb went on in my head (pun intended!)

 

CASE STUDIES 

The Graduate School of Business at Harvard University long ago pioneered the use of case studies as part of its MBA curriculum.   This tool has proven to be highly effective in teaching both concepts and practical applications.   Over time, the Harvard case study program has grown significantly and is used by the Graduate School of Design as well as many other schools and departments at the university. Hundreds of cases have been published and is a revenue source for the university as cases are available for purchase on-line.  Many other universities, institutions, and organizations have adopted the case study approach to teaching and learning. 

Elizabeth Eyre of Mind Tools (www.mindtools.com) quotes Malcolm Knowles in identifying four key observations of adult learners:

1. Adults learn best if they know why they’re learning something.

2. Adults often learn best through experience.

3. Adults tend to view learning as an opportunity to solve problems.

4. Adults learn best when the topic is relevant to them and immediately applicable.

As Eyre notes: “This means that you’ll get the best results with adults when they’re fully involved in the learning experience.   Give an adult an opportunity to practice and work with a new skill, and you have a solid foundations for high-quality learning that the person will likely retain over time.”   

She continues:  “Case studies are a form of problem-based learning, where you present a situation that needs a resolution. A typical business case study is a detailed account, or story, of what happened in a particular company, industry, or project over a set period of time.” “Case studies are a great way to improve a learning experience, because they get the learner involved, and encourage immediate use of newly acquired skills.”

A technique to improve the experience is to assign the case study to a group.   Typically, questions are assigned along with the material and require the group to discuss and respond to the issues raised. This encourages sharing of experience and knowledge and can serve as a team-building exercise.  While the teacher/lecturer may have great experience, the sharing within the group enhances the learning process.   As Elizabeth Eyre points out, case studies…”differ from lectures or assigned readings, because they require participation and deliberate application of a broad range of skills.   For example, if you study financial analysis through straightforward learning methods, you may have to calculate and understand a long list of financial ratios.   Likewise, you may be given a set of financial statements to complete a ratio analysis.  But, until you put the exercise into context, you may not really know why you’re doing the analysis.”

 

SUMMARY

Both story-telling and case studies are invaluable devices to improve the learning process.   Each has its role in conveying information and is of great benefit to design and construction professionals seeking to learn new materials, improve performance on their current job or learn a completely new job.    

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 Howard Birnberg is executive director of the Association for Project Managers.   He may be reached at 312-664-2300, hbirnberg@gmail.com

Howard Birnberg