Top 5: What and How We Learn from Fiction

Duke Postdoc Andrew C. Butler talks about the ways we learn from fictional works

The original movie poster for Cleopatra, made in 1917

Works of fiction blend the real and imaginary into compelling stories that transport people back in time, let them visit faraway places and experience other cultures.

As a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, Andrew C. Butler studies human learning and memory and recently co-authored a scholarly article on historical inaccuracies in film.

Here Butler provides his Top 5 things that we should know about learning from fictional materials:

1. Learning from fiction is an age-old tradition

Works of fiction have been used as a source for learning throughout history. For example, the ancient Greeks used epic poems such as the Iliad to teach about important topics like history, geography and morals. Today, fictional sources can still be found in the classroom as educators use popular films, novels, video games and television shows to help their students learn. Of course, learning from fictional sources doesn't just occur in the classroom -- we all encounter works of fiction in our everyday lives, and we learn a lot about the world from these sources.

2. Stories are memorable

Fictional materials often have a narrative form: they tell stories with a structure (e.g., beginning, middle and end) familiar to everyone. Research in cognitive science has shown that this narrative structure increases learning and long-term retention because it provides people with a way to organize the information. Of course, the fact that stories are well-remembered is one reason why narrative structure has been so important to the oral traditions (e.g., songs, poems, myths, etc.) of various cultures. 

3. Fiction is a double-edge sword

Fiction often includes information about real people, places and events. As a result, people can learn accurate information about the world from watching popular films, reading novels and listening to stories. However, fiction also contains a lot of incorrect information because creators of such work often take some artistic license in order to tell a more entertaining story. Unfortunately, as we have shown in our research, this means that people can learn inaccurate information from films, too. 

4. People process fiction differently than non-fiction

A good work of fiction suspends reality and immerses people in a fictional world in which they are part of the story. When people read or watch fiction, it often produces mental imagery, evokes emotions and focuses attention, all of which are mechanisms that can increase learning and long-term retention. In contrast, people rarely experience that with non-fiction. The immersion into the fictional world may hinder the reader or viewer's ability to evaluate information critically, which may increase the likelihood of learning inaccurate information.

5. Warnings and feedback help

For educators who use fiction in the classroom, there are ways to guard against passing along false knowledge. Our research has shown that two strategies are very effective. The first is giving students specific warnings about the inaccuracies in the fictional material before they engage with it. The second is asking students to monitor for inaccuracies in the fictional work and then providing them with feedback. These strategies should help students to avoid inaccurate information while also enjoying the benefits of learning what is true.