A New Type of Professional Development: Storytelling and Its Place in the Classroom

Director's cut says "Storytelling" with book open and glasses in front of it

Is there a better way to connect with students and show empathy?
Is there a better way to illustrate how our curriculum is career relevant?

To answer these questions and more, the University of Phoenix (UOPX) Faculty Training and Development team, in conjunction with Dr. Eve Krahe Billings, dean of Academic Innovation and Evaluation at the University, developed and piloted a new workshop called Storytelling in Higher Education, dedicated to storytelling and its application to higher education. The workshop consisted of asynchronous modules focused on the theory and practice of storytelling, the use of storytelling as a teaching tool, and storytelling as a way to highlight the career relevance of our curriculum for UOPX students. The experience culminated in a series of synchronous Storytelling Festivals where participants were able to tell their stories live and receive feedback from other course participants as well as facilitators.

“The beauty of this pilot was three-fold: Storytelling as a teaching practice became real for participants, a community of inquiry was organically built around storytelling on faculty Yammer, and we had a clear line of sight to the incredible depth and breadth of expertise across our faculty population—these are incredible people,” Dr. Krahe Billings said.

The facilitated workshop:

  • Involved bringing in an external subject matter expert
  • Took place over a five-week period
  • Culminated in a synchronous storytelling format
  • Included weekly discussion boards, journals, and assignments
  • Incorporated a third-party tool, Jamboard, to provide real-time feedback to participants
  • Required active participation by workshop participants and facilitators – lurking was not allowed
  • Allowed the Faculty Training and Development team to model best practices (course design, engagement, feedback, etc.)

The pilot included faculty from all University of Phoenix colleges and encompassed upper- and lower-division courses in computer science, psychology, education, math, accounting, history, health administration, writing, and nursing.

As the workshop began, faculty reported excitement and a little apprehension:

  • I’ve always thought the connections that faculty make with students are so important, and with all that’s happened over the last two years especially, I think it’s important now more than ever to make connections with students. I am excited for this workshop because I think storytelling can be a great way to connect with students. Though I feel like I incorporate some aspects of storytelling in my discussions with students when I share my experiences with certain topics, I don’t feel like I fully understand how to incorporate this teaching strategy.
  • In this workshop I hope to improve my storytelling skills so that I can better relay the practical application of the financial accounting concepts covered in the three intermediate accounting courses. Having concrete examples presented often helps students better comprehend the concepts being studied and tie them into their personal and professional life. I would also like to be able to help students improve their critical thinking skills so that they can successfully deal with accounting situations that do not have specific examples in the textbook.

As the workshop progressed, participants explored various story structures, reviewed the science behind storytelling, began to build their own story repertoire, created a course topic to story chart, and presented a course story of their own at the culminating storytelling festival. It was a lot of work, however, but all of it scaffolded to the final story presentation.

At the beginning of the workshop, participants were not sure how storytelling could be used as a powerful tool to create an empathetic classroom or how to establish the relevance of curriculum to their industry, however, by the end of the workshop, all of the participants reported that storytelling was key to increased empathy and career relevance.

So, what’s next? Our preliminary data shows that faculty strongly believe that the workshop was a worthwhile investment of time. As the participants facilitate their post-workshop classes and apply the storytelling techniques used in class to their instruction, we’ll collect student data to analyze their thoughts on whether or not the incorporation of stories strengthened their connection with faculty and increased the relevance of the curriculum. Until our next article, if you would like to explore the world of storytelling, the following resources are a good starting point:

Tahnja Wilson, MBA/MIM is the director of Faculty Training and Development at the University of Phoenix. She has over 20+ years in higher education focusing on best practices, the incorporation of games into the curriculum, and “common-sense” design.

Eve Krahe Billings is the dean of Academic Innovation and Evaluation at the University of Phoenix. Her time is divided between leading the University’s Institutional Assessment and Research Team, and benchmarking UOPX initiatives to emerging best practice and market initiatives across higher ed.