Why Storytelling Matters in Teaching and Instructional Design

I love stories and believe in their power and ability to change people’s lives by calling them to action. Littlejohn, Foss, and Oetzel (2017) concur, asserting that “storytelling is a universal function, a natural human capacity that crosses time and culture; humans comprehend their actions and those of others in the form of stories” (p. 348). Recently I’ve been pondering the importance of incorporating the art of storytelling into teaching and instructional design.

The Importance and Power of Stories

Walter Fisher’s narrative paradigm is one of my favorite communication theories describing the power of stories. Fisher believed humans are “homo narrans or inherent storytellers” (Littlejohn, Foss, & Oetzel, 2017, p. 348). He described a narrative as “a theory of symbolic actions- words and/or deeds- that have sequence and meaning for those who live, create, or interpret them” (Fisher, 1984, p. 2). Narratives, regardless of the medium through which they are told, are an intrinsic part of our human nature, crossing time and culture (Fisher, 1984, p. 8). This is why we often use stories as an analytical device to understand human behavior (Larson, 2013, p. 84).

In his narrative paradigm, Fisher observed that successful narratives are persuasive based on their probability and fidelity. Narrative probability focuses on “whether the narration offered is a coherent story” and narrative fidelity focuses on “whether [the narration] rings true with the hearer’s experience” (Larson, 2013, p. 84; Littlejohn & Foss, 2011, p. 144). Fisher’s narrative paradigm reminds us that stories have the power to create empathy, provide a new perspective, and call people to action—regardless of the medium through which they are told. The narrative paradigm reveals that narratives “are more than rhetorical devices. They are ways of connecting to the ideas and ideals of society and particular audiences” (Littlejohn & Foss, 2011, p. 145). The stories that stay with us become part of our constructs—forever ingrained in us. They shape the way we see the world. With this foundation for understanding the power of stories, let’s explore what it means to apply this art form in teaching and instructional design.

Storytelling in Teaching and Instructional Design

In order for students to be motivated to learn, they need to recognize the relevance of the lesson, concept, or objective being taught. I discuss the importance of relevance and its role in motivating students to learn in my post on Relevance in my ARCS Model for Motivation series.

Relevance and the art of storytelling make a powerful combination. Zambito (2018) observes that explaining concepts through stories makes the concepts easier to remember and helps students integrate what they’ve learned in meaningful, relevant ways both in and outside of class. Storytelling makes learning more engaging by providing opportunities for “emotional connection, curiosity, persuasion, context, recall, entertainment, and assimilation” (Zambito, 2018).

Similarly, Miller (2021) discusses the power of stories and their impact on teaching and learning as he unpacks Pixar’s 10 Rules for Teaching and Lesson Planning. While all 10 rules are well worth the read, I want to focus on rules 4, 5, and 9.

4: “Why must you tell THIS story? OR Why must you teach THIS lesson?”

As you’re creating weekly lessons, assignments, and activities, remind yourself of your overall course learning outcomes and weekly learning objectives. Consider whether the lesson, assignment, or activity adds to or takes away from the narrative of the course. Miller (2021) asserts, “Remind yourself why your students need to learn this lesson and how it can shape them into the exceptional humans we need for a bright future,” and add lessons, assignments, activities that work toward this goal.

5: “If you were a character in this situation, how would you feel? OR If you were a student in this situation, how would you feel?“

Whether we realize it or not, teaching and instructional design must come from a place of empathy. If you have been around your institution, university, or department for long, you know the rhythms and the ins and outs of the program(s) you work with. You’re also familiar with what courses students need to graduate and the required workload for each of those courses. It is easy to get so caught up in meeting requirements that students and their experience not only with an individual course, but with their program as a whole, are forgotten. Miller (2021) poses excellent questions to consider regarding empathizing with students in teaching and curriculum design:

  • Where will they have been when they get to you? What will they have thought about? What weighs heavily on their mind?
  • How much mental work (cognitive load) will they have dealt with? How much more will they realistically be able to handle?
  • What’s important to them? What do they like? What makes them laugh? How can we use that so their brain’s filter (reticular activating system) doesn’t shut the learning out?

9: “Keep in mind what’s interesting to your audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. OR Focus on what serves your students, not what’s fun for you as a teacher.”

While Rule #5 focuses on empathizing with students, Rule #9 speaks to relevance. Is your lesson, assignment, or activity based on something you did as a student or early on in teaching or curriculum design that no longer has relevance to students today? Or did you see or hear about a fun activity that one of your colleagues tried and it’s not clicking for your students? While we should aspire to make a learning environment innovative, creative, and entertaining (as all good stories are) the goal should be to design and teach a course with a narrative that serves the needs of students rather than our own.

Student Stories

Finally, I want to challenge us, as educators and instructional designers, to find and incorporate opportunities for students to share their personal stories through course assignments or activities (bonus points if you ask them to share their stories in assignments outside of the Discussion Board, although the Discussion Board is a great place to start). If students can make a personal connection with the curriculum through their own life story, it will strengthen the relevance of the curriculum as well as the probability that they will remember the content they learned and apply it in their lives.

Conclusion

Your course is a narrative. You begin in Week 1 with an introduction to the course and set the foundation for the direction of the narrative during the duration of the course. The rising action takes place during the first few weeks as students gain knowledge about the course learning outcomes and weekly course objectives. The climax of the story occurs around the halfway point of the semester, when students realize that there is no turning back and that they have to continue to work toward their final project(s). The denouement and resolution of the course narrative takes shape during the final weeks of class as students submit their final project(s) and finish the course. You will know if the course provided an effective narrative if students enjoy and connect with the course and remember and apply what they’ve learned long after the course ends.

References

Fisher, W. R. (1984, March). Narration as a human communication paradigm: The case of public moral argument. Communication Monographs, 51, 1-22. https://doi.org/10.1080/03637758409390180

Larson, C. U. (2013). Persuasion: Reception and responsibility (13th ed.). Wadsworth.

Littlejohn, S. W., & Foss, K. (2011). Theories of human communication (10th ed.). Waveland Press.

Littlejohn, S. W., Foss, K. A., & Oetzel, J. G. (2017). Theories of human communication (11th ed.). Waveland Press.

Miller, M. (2021, November 3). Pixar’s 10 rules for teaching and lesson planning. Ditch That Textbook.

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

Author: Ann Broda, Instructional Designer

Ann is pursuing her PhD in Communication through Regent University and also teaches speech online at Olivet Nazarene University. In her free time she enjoys spending time with family and friends, participating in theatre, drinking coffee, biking, traveling, and reading.

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