Stories to Help Students Learn

Educators can take advantage of the fact that humans are predisposed to remembering stories. Knowledge, in the evolution of the human species, was passed on through stories. A story is different than a narrative in that a story tends to be more personal, and include a character that has problems towards achieving a goal (Mar, 2004). We are, in our ongoing thinking processes, telling ourselves stories about the events that make up our lives in the past, present, and future. Stories can be engaging at the personal, emotional, and social level.

Stories are not new to the classroom and the evidence-based value of stories has been validated by research. McNett (2016), identifies four broad types of story-based instruction. Case based stories have a fixed problem and solution; narrative based stories have a linear set of events; scenario-based stories involve a variety of solutions; and problem-based stories leave the learner to develop their own parameters and conclusions.

McNett (2016), provides six methods for teaching with stories which can be incorporated into the classroom. Each teacher would have to do extra work to develop stories with clear-cut goals and associated objectives and try different methods based on various students in various subjects. Learning objectives can be related to the different methods of storytelling as well as the specific stories. Story are valuable by being entertaining, engaging, personalizing, as well as valuable in the association, communication, and transference of knowledge.

Some disciplines, such as medicine and law, currently use storytelling by way of describing case studies to illustrate facts and concepts. Stories told as case studies can serve as examples of how things work in a variety of disciplines.

Stories that involve actions have been shown by neuroscience to have a physical correlate. Mirror neurons in the pre-frontal cortex, are known to fire not just when we do something but also fire when we see another person perform the action (Rizzolatti and Craighero, 2004).

In a presentation if you can tell a story and put the student in the story or create a story that allows themselves to put themselves in the autobiographical information, that story will have an emotional content that makes the memory more permanent (Rabin, et. al, 2010).

Another storytelling technique which may be useful is to have the students be the storytellers (Pio and Haigh, 2007). Students would have to develop a story based on learning objectives that illustrates a goal or moral for the activity. A variation of students as storytellers may simply be to have the student relay personal experiences associated with a particular lesson. This can also be useful in small group sessions.

Of course adding drama and theatrics to presentations makes them more memorable. Utilizing voice changes in costumes draws attention to elements of the story. Adults perceive incongruities which may also be used to add to how indelible presentation was.

Using stories to make a point can be extremely valuable as a teaching tool. As Ian Whishaw once said, “never let the truth stand in the way of a good story”. The important point is to make the story interesting, provide information in a desired direction, and add emotion to seal the learning.

Mar, R. A. 2004. The Neuropsychology of Narrative: Story Comprehension, Story Production and Their Interrelation.Neuropsychologia 42: 1414–34.

McNett, G., (2016) Using Stories to Facilitate Learning, College Teaching, 64:4, 184-193.

Rizzolatti, G. & L. Craighero. 2004. “The Mirror-Neuron System.” Annual Review of Neuroscience 27: 169–92.

Rabin, J. S., A. Gilboa, D. T. Stuss, R. A. Mar, & R. S. Rosenbaum. 2010. Common and Unique Correlates of Autobiographical Memory and Theory of Mind. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 22 (6): 1095–1111.

Pio, E., & N. Haigh. 2007. “Towards a Pedagogy of Inspirational Parables.” Education C Training 49 (2): 77–90.

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