Learning from Stories

Have you ever lost yourself in a story? There’s nothing quite like it. The whole world passes by as you absorb the plot, setting, and characters. When you return (a little blurry-eyed) to reality, your whole perspective shifts to adjust to what you’ve experienced. After immersing yourself in the narrative, you have changed.

We share stories to inform, instruct, connect, engage, and entertain. According to Interaction Design Foundation co-founder and editor-in-chief Rikke Dam (2017), “everyone loves a story; none of us is ever too ‘old’ for a story.”

Stories make us human—they shape (and reshape) how we see our world and help us relate to others within our community. From an early age, we explore our environment through stories, and they infuse our lives with meaning throughout our lives.

Learning development and educational software expert Victoria Zambito (2018) says, “stories communicate information in the exact manner in which we as humans think, how we process and absorb information, how we see ourselves, and how we influence others.”

That’s what makes storytelling an effective strategy for formal and informal learning.

Humans Developed to Learn from Stories

We’re wired to learn from story. Stories encourage learners to make an emotional connection to a topic. In fact, listening to a narrative that sustains attention produces oxytocin—a chemical released when we’re motivated to cooperate with and allows us to trust others. It enhances our empathy to the emotions of others (Zak, 2014).

In 6 Rules for Persuasive Storytelling, Rachel Krause (2019), an user experience specialist with Nielsen Norman Group, states that stories:

  • Help us explain difficult concepts
  • Spark our imaginations and generate new ideas
  • Allow us to form a shared understanding

As I mentioned in my post about writing relevant, engaging, and useful content, we’re more likely to retain what we’ve learned if we’re engaged with a story on a personal level. If you use a story to describe a difficult subject in context, it helps the learner make sense of it. It’s easier to remember the main ideas of a story than memorize a list of dates or facts.

But learners don’t just learn passively from story. As Gwen shared, learners also engage in learning by telling their own stories about the materials. That’s why reflecting on learning or teaching another person how to do something improves the learner’s understanding of the content.

When I worked in the Reference department of a public library, I helped numerous patrons learn how to find, check out, download, and read digital books using an app.

At the time, tablets and smartphones were new. With a mix of rural and urban residents, our patrons were unfamiliar with foundational technology concepts. It was not unusual for a patron to feel defeated before they even tried.

One such patron approached my desk. His grandchildren had bought him an iPad, and he was convinced he’d never be able to use it.

As I walked him through the app, I related the tasks to stories of using the physical library. When he grasped how to use a part of the app, I asked him to walk me through it in his own words, only jumping in with a question or phrase to help him get back on track. By the time we finished, the patron could tell himself the story and use the app—he left excited to tell his family.

When we talk about the design of learning experiences, we need to reach for stories. We developed to learn from them, and we’re more likely to retain learning if it’s meaningful.

What’s a learning story that’s stuck with you? Let us know!


Dam, R. (2017). Everyone loves a story, and we are all natural storytellers. Interaction Design Foundation.

Krause, R. (2019, April 28). 6 Rules for persuasive storytelling. Nielsen Norman Group.

Zak, P. J. (2014, October 28). Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling. Harvard Business Review.

Zambito, V. (2018, July 15). Why storytelling works in elearning. eLearning Industry.

Author: Jessica Bishop, Instructional Designer

Jessica is a designer and writer focused on learnability, storytelling, sensemaking, wayfinding, and removing barriers to learning. A Michigan native, she likes crafting, reading, walking, and spending way too much time in the distant corners of the internet. You can also find her at JessicaMBishop.com.

4 thoughts on “Learning from Stories”

  1. Agreed, from reading a book and thus the story (and thus hearing or telling the story via the voice in my head) I felt I learnt not just another part of history/story, but could also apply it/learn from it in my own way.
    What I also like about stories is that we can learn that others (mostly heroes or successful individuals) also had their personal struggles and were thus not individuals that only lived a ‘perfect life’ which we are striving for in the modern world, but also normal people. Which then gives us some sense of ease that making mistakes is a normal part of the process of living.

    Once we accepted that part we start living a more calm life, without the stress that ‘everyone else is living a successful life but me, I must be doing something wrong’ attitude.

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