5 Timeless Nuggets for Using Story in Online Teaching

5 Timeless Nuggets for Using Story in Online Teaching

Using stories and storytelling in online teaching is an underused method of increasing student engagement and interest.  Here are just five of many takeaways from recent writings about story in teaching:

Present and encourage narrative in case studies. Case studies are inherently stories. In his book, How to Do Your Case Study, author Gary Thomas emphasizes the narrative aspects of case studies, especially in the sciences. “Assume that whatever you want to study,” Thomas writes, “has, not causes, but a history, a story, a narrative, a ‘first this happened, then that happened, and then the other happened, and it ended up like this.’ With this view we understand the occurrence of events by learning the steps in the process by which they came to happen, rather than by learning the conditions that made their existence necessary.”

Introduce new material in story form. Presenting material in story form improves comprehension and memory. Again looking at the sciences, Arya and Maul tested the presentation of content in “typical expository fashion or in terms of a personal story of the scientist,” relates Daniel Willingham in The Washington Post. The advantage of story over expository was significant.

Engage student learning by evoking anticipation through stories. Ray Jimenez, a significant guru of story-based eLearning design, whom I cite in my chapter of Modern Instructor: Success Strategies for the Online Professor, espouses the idea that “Story-based eLearning design is effective because it creates an environment where learners are compelled to anticipate. The vagueness of ‘what’s next’ keeps the mind engrossed until the story finds a resolution. Very few people can resist the power of a good story.”

Let students construct endings to unconcluded stories. Consider learning activities in which students speculate on a story with no ending – or one with an enigmatic ending. Jimenez cites the famed blackout ending to the “Sopranos” TV series, in which any number of outcomes have been speculated. “After hooking the learners with a well-written and engaging story, the open-ended ending allow[ed] the viewers [to] decide how to end their story,” Jimenez notes. Instructors can apply that approach to online learning: “As the learners attempt to put an ending to an unconcluded story,” he says, “different insights contribute to the development of the lesson.” In his post about unconcluded stories, Jimenez offers guidelines on how to create a story-based elearning lesson with an impactful open ending.

Use short bursts of learning, counter-intuitive story principles, and social-media tools. That’s the advice of organizational consultant, trainer, and author Terrence Gargiulo, who offers an information-packed how-to on LinkedIn. Gargiulo refers to “conversationally driven web-based live online learning programs” containing what he calls the ‘Triple Threat of Storytelling:’ telling stories, listening to stories and triggering stories.” The capacity for learning to trigger stories in participants, he says is key. 

The permutations of possibility for using story are nearly endless. You can learn more in Modern Instructor: Success Strategies for the Online Professor.

Katharine Hansen

Katharine Hansen

Kathy Hansen is a creative director and associate publisher of Quintessential Careers. She is an online educator, author, and blogger who provides content for Quintessential Careers and blogs about storytelling at A Storied Career. Kathy earned her PhD from Union Institute & University and has authored more than nine books.