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Storytelling as Pedagogy

Engaging students through storytelling

By Guest Writer: Janel Seeley

The instructor as storyteller

How many times have you sat down to read a story (fiction or non-fiction) and find that you just can’t put it down? Story has the power to capture our imagination and engage our thinking and emotions (Green & Brock, 2000). What if you could engage your students in this way? What if they were so engrossed in what you were saying that they didn’t start packing up their bags five minutes before the end of class?  What if they could better remember what you say because of the stories you tell?

 You may be thinking storytelling is a great idea for the K-12 the classroom, but stories are a powerful tool in the college classroom as well. Larry Brown (2011) shares his success in storytelling in the college classroom:

All life is narrative, well at least narrative is how we perceive the structure of the cosmos, derive meaning, use language, and develop community. That seems to be a universal experience. I cannot imagine teaching informally or formally without narrative, without telling stories. So in the undergraduate or graduate classroom, or in alternative adult education, I do tell. I am aware that considerable contemporary research has indicated the value and effectiveness of story in teaching/learning, but I often structure the class period itself as a narrative plot. The class (if not the whole course) is a process of awareness, ambiguity, complexity, roles, and resolution. I have noticed from evaluations that my students connect with key concepts through the stories used in class, or the narrative structure of the class.

We can use this power of awareness and valuing to improve student learning. Through story, students can take data and facts that might seem to be disjointed pieces of information and tie them all together in  one picture  (Simmons, 2007; Green 2004). Unfortunately, facts or “truth” are not always interesting or exciting, and sometimes when presented in a factual manner, students are not always sure what to do with these facts. For example, as children most of us learned the concepts of sharing or playing fair through fairy tales rather than our parents simply telling us to play nice. As students, we could picture math story problems rather than a simple equation or understood the Holocaust through reading The Diary of Anne Frank rather than reading a textbook chapter on the war.  

Sometimes presenting something as a fact may even inhibit learning or further inquiry. For example, most of us were taught that Columbus discovered America. Upon further inquiry, however, columbuswe have learned that native peoples told that story very differently. Storytelling offers opportunities to begin a reflective dialogue that can provide new perspectives and contribute to the construction of new knowledge (Alterio, 2003).  By telling our own story we make meaning for others and ourselves (McAdams, 1993). In turn, suspending our assumptions that our story is the only true story and taking time to really listen to others’ stories, we may change our own understanding. Sharing stories together and reflecting on their meaning through dialogue can often create brand new stories and ways of understanding.

For additional information on how  Storytelling  can be a creative and engaging tool for instructors, check out this brief article from Observer, April, 2004.  

How do you develop content as story?  Stories used in the classroom may be personal antidotes from your own or others’ experiences or may be stories that you find in books, movies or other media. If you are feeling creative and would like to try creating a story from scratch, there are seven aspects that are common to almost all stories.

Creating a character or characters.

Decide what they look like. Are they human, what feelings do they have and what are their strengths or weaknesses? Listeners often identify with characters.

Create a challenge

What sorts of challenges are facing the characters? A challenge creates excitement and suspense and keeps the listener engaged.

Give your characters some motivation

Why are they behaving the way they are? Why are they doing things a certain way rather than another? Make their actions believable to your listener.

Describe the setting

Where is your story taking place? Is the setting important enough that it almost acts as another character?

Create some obstacles

What is getting in the way of your characters ability to solve the problem or challenge? A smooth sail doesn’t make an interesting story.

Build to the climax

This is where your characters confront the challenges and transformation usually takes place. This is where the lesson happens.


Tie up any lose ends and discuss how your character feels now that the problem has been resolved. This is where the lesson is summarized or discussed.

Think of yourself as a student of storytelling and take advantage of this Tutorial and Worksheets on the seven steps to storytelling. 


Students as storytellers:

Of course your stories aren’t the only way for students to learn in the classroom. Encourage students to share their own stories. The co-creation of knowledge through storytelling can be a powerful tool in teaching and learning. Invite students to share verbal stories, written stories or digital stories of their experiences with the topics in your class. Assign your students a storytelling project and have them use the guidelines and worksheets presented in the link above.  Or, try this popular method of digital storytelling,  or using media to tell stories.

A festival of stories:

Do you love to hear a good story yourself? Did you know that the International Storytelling Center is right here in Tennessee? The first full weekend in October, storytellers and listeners from around the world gather under huge tents in Jonesborough for their National Storytelling Festival.   For more information visit their website

Alterio, M. (2003) Using storytelling to enhance student learning. The Higher Education Academy. Retrieved from
Brown, L. (2011) One story of storytelling in higher education. The Art of Storytelling Show.  Retrieved from
Green, M. (2004) Storytelling in Teaching. The Association for Psychological Science. 17:4
Green, M.C., & Brock, T.C. (2000) Narrative impact: Social and cognitive foundations Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum
McAdams, D.P. (1993) The stories we live by. New York: Guilford.
Simmons, A. (2007) Whoever tells the best story wins: how to use your own stories to communicate with power and impact.  New York: AMACOM.

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