Take a moment to think about the number of stories we encounter in an average day; think about the anecdotes told by friends, the prime-time dramas we watch, the mini stories on our Facebook news feeds, the advertisements we see. It’s a wonder we get any work done at all. The human mind loves stories. Even where no “story” exists, we often make one. For example, most people will tell a selective account of the events in their lives that led to their chosen career or educational field.
Given the human propensity to tell stories, and the equally fascinating desire to consume them, I want to discuss why stories belong in the classroom and how they can be an effective teaching tool. Earlier this year, CTE co-op student, Zahra Razavi discussed the role of storytelling in the classroom from the perspective of a student. In this post, I want to talk about storytelling from the perspective of the teacher. My research is on the psychology of narrative, and there are some intriguing findings that have come out of labs around the world on the topic recently that speak to the power of stories to move us (almost literally).
The neuropsychology of story processing
On uWaterloo posters around campus, you may see the Benjamin Franklin quote, “tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” As Mr. Franklin alluded to and as more and more evidence is suggesting, direct lecturing isn’t the most effective way to teach our students. However, many instructors are faced with large class sizes and limitations in time and resources that make methods like demonstrations or debates difficult to implement. Stories, however, are a quick and simple way of involving your students.
Through neuroimaging studies, researchers have found that when we read or hear about a particular action, corresponding motor and perceptual areas of our brain are activated that would also be activated if we were actually carrying out the described activity (here and here). So if we read a passage like the following,
“There was no sign of the bus and the instructor was going to be late for her first day of class. She knew she wouldn’t make a good impression with the second years if she arrived 15 minutes late. She started sprinting for the lecture hall. She breathed in the crisp, autumn air as her feet struck the sidewalk. As she neared the university, her bus passed her by.”
our mind really plays along. Motor areas corresponding to running and olfactory areas perhaps corresponding to that crisp autumn smell will be activated in the brain. This activation isn’t strong enough to actual get our legs running, but is more of a simulation of running.
Other studies, not involving brain imaging, have also shown that our minds do become active participants in events we read about or hear. Adults are faster to respond to a blurry image of an animal when a character sees it through foggy goggles. Children process a story more slowly when the main character is walking compared to driving. Adults’ pupil diameters adjust in response to imagined luminance or brightness.
For these reasons, stories have been described as a flight simulator for the mind. Although students would undoubtedly get a richer experience by going out into the field and collecting soil samples, for example, hearing a story about another individual collecting soil samples (and potentially encountering an unexpected obstacle) is a sort of “experience lite” for the budding soil scientist.
A quick and relatively simple way to involve your students, then, is to tell them a story related to the content they are learning.
How stories may be used in the university classroom
Many instructors inject the odd story into their teaching, whether intentionally or not. However, most academic writing, presentations, and lectures do not include stories. Anecdotes are often contrasted with evidence; fiction with fact.
As I’ve described above, when we hear or read a story, our minds play along. The consequences of the engagement – much greater engagement than one would see when just presenting facts or data – are deeper processing, and often greater retention. Experimental studies (here and here) have found that undergraduates’ learning from stories can be quite robust – a pro if the story information is correct, but a con if the information is truly fictional.
Here, I present three possible ways in which instructors may intentionally incorporate storytelling into their teaching:
Story as example. The instructor may decide to use a story as a way of introducing or reinforcing concepts. In Teaching Economics with Short Stories, Philip Ruder suggests using stories such as Proulx’s New Yorker piece, What Kind of Furniture Would Jesus Pick? to help reinforce economic concepts of supply and demand, and externalities. In this respect, stories can be used to contextualize abstract concepts. Story types include anecdotes, fictional short stories, current or historical events, and analogies.
Story as evidence. In some cases, the instructor may be able to use events in the world to get students to build hypotheses or refute prevailing or previous theories. This may be by telling students about the story of a scientific discovery (an aha! moment), or by recounting a historical or current event. In psychology courses, instructors often present the news story of the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese to get students to generate hypotheses about why, even though so many witnesses were present, no one acted or intervened. Story types include current or historical events, personal experiences, or science stories.
Story as practice/experience. The instructor may wish to use stories to engage general skills, such as problem solving, or more discipline-specific skills. The website sciencecases.org contains a wealth of case studies from various disciplines that can be used for this purpose. In addition to case studies, story types include role play, videos, or any form of story with reflection/discussion.
A cautionary tale…
A few things to consider in the selection and delivery of stories in the classroom:
- Be careful with the types of stories you present. If any incorrect information exists in them, students may integrate it into their knowledge-base. Integration of knowledge is often robust.
- Stories can be more compelling than facts and data. Certain psychological biases often cause us to use anecdotal evidence to refute factual statements (e.g., “Well, all the people with younger siblings that I know have really good social skills!”). Students may approach stories less critically and cynically
- Selecting the right stories can be difficult/time-consuming. Delivery can also be time-consuming.
Whether telling a story to encourage students to generate hypotheses, or simply to provide a comic aside during an otherwise dry lesson, stories are an effective way to captivate one’s audience and engage them in ideas and practices in the field from the “comfort” of their seat.