January 9th, 2015

The Power of Storytelling in the College Classroom


I love stories; stories about life, our personal experiences, the happy and the sad. Stories teach us about how the world sometimes works and how we relate to it. When I was young, I used to love to hear my parents talk about their experiences when they were young. Their stories gave me the opportunity to learn not only about their lives, but also gave me a better understanding of my culture, the traditions of my family, and its history. In a sense, these stories gave me a better understanding of myself. Stories put into context information that would otherwise remain fragmented, pieces of this and that, thrown into a catchall closet in which items are tossed and usually hopelessly lost.

Our students also love stories. A brief, well-told narrative can catch their attention and can set the mood for learning. We like stories because our brains operate in the same fashion. Stories allow our brain to use information in the most effective way. Our brains need the opportunity to classify and file information that is in relationship to each other. It doesn’t like that catchall closet of miscellaneous bits of information, it likes order, context, and continuity. Stories not only allow for a beginning and an end, but help us understand how we came to that end, what brought us there.

I try to start each class with a story. It could be a personal experience, a myth, a historical event, or anything that relates to that day’s lesson. Stories grab students’ attention. They become interested in not only what the story is about, but how the story relates to them. Stories in many ways touch the core of who we are, and that thing that makes us human. If you think back when you were a child and having a story read to you, didn’t you immerse yourself in the tale and perhaps think about how you would react if you were a character in the story? Philosopher James Stevens wrote, “The head does not hear anything until the heart has listened. The heart knows today what the head will understand tomorrow.” The things that we learn and remember usually stick with us because on some level we can relate to them personally. If we use stories in our teaching, it may give our students a better opportunity to connect to a more personal kind of learning.

Stories in the classroom can be a fundamental way of making discussions more meaningful. Interjecting that human component and assimilating ideas based upon our own personal experiences, not only allows students to begin to connect all the dots, but may aid in helping students feel more confident in their understanding of the subject matter.

Author and scholar Kieren Egan wrote this about teaching and storytelling: “Thinking of teaching as storytelling…encourages us to think of curriculum as a collection of great stories of our culture. If we begin to think in these terms, instead of seeing the curriculum as a huge mass of material to be conveyed to students, we can begin to think of teachers in our society as an ancient and honored role. Teachers are the tellers of our cultures role.”

I’d like to share a story with you

It’s always interesting to me when, at the beginning of class, I start with the words, “I’d like to share a story with you,” how the attention in the class changes. Students seem to put their focus not only on me, but themselves as well. It’s almost magical in some ways. It may be one of those few times where technology cannot replace the power of one person telling a story to another person.

So in using this notion, stories in our classroom can have four key advantages:

  1. Getting the students attention, as well as, focusing on the lesson at hand.
  2. Setting a platform for students to interact and comment on their thoughts about the story.
  3. Providing a stronger connection in the classroom, with you and fellow students.
  4. Giving students who normally do not participate in class, the opportunity to share their own personal experiences in relation to the stories shared.

Storytelling may be the oldest form of education. If I can, in some way, help students relate to what I am teaching, then their learning becomes more personal. So create a lesson which includes a story, give students the opportunity to become personally involved in the story, and you may find your students discovering a different view of the subject matter and the joy of learning itself.

Sal S. Buffo is a psychology professor at Yavapai College.

  • Storytelling is a tacitly-acknowledged pillar of military training, both formal and informal. There is a long-standing joke that you will learn more about tactics in the Mess over a beverage than you will in a classroom or on an exercise…stories have a lot to do with that.

  • In my current role I want to integrate some of the ad-hoc storytelling that has taken place and make it a core component of our internal learning practices. We have many long-standing employees and their stories are invaluable parts of our company's history and legacy.

  • mcheyer

    I think storytelling is a great way to relate to students rather than the proverbial "sage on the stage". It creates more of a facilitator role for the professor and, as you so state, I do think it does help students focus on the present class and provides a connection with other students and perhaps their community and job outside the classroom. Good post.

  • George Smith

    Personal stories have always been a key component of how I teach. Theoretical concepts take on new meanings for students who otherwise might tend to memorize a list of terminology or a textbook definition. Stories explicitly demonstrate how we relate to course content … and why this content is important to understand. Thanks for affirming this important element of our classroom teaching!

  • Guest

    While I think the point of the article is good, it would have been more effective if it had started off with a brief anecdote illustrating the use of a story at the beginning of a class to achieve the desired results 🙂

  • Siegfred Javelosa

    I am from the Philippines and I teach management courses. Having been a manager myself, I would tell stories of how I managed companies – the challenges and difficulties of being a manager. I agree. Unattentive students would suddenly be interested to listen to my stories and I got to get a lot of questions.

  • Cindy Rubin

    You can always hear a pin drop in my classes, when I share relevant stories that includes the lesson's intended facts versus a lecture of facts. It also brings the students in, they do ask relevant questions, and share their own stories. Great discussions arise! Thank you for the article.

  • Ninozca

    Es cierto, lo de las historias, despiertan más el interés en lo que se va a trabajar. Que hacemos con los directores de escuela parametrados, que tiene que ser con una lámina o un vídeo, u otro material que tenga relación con el tema a trabajar en esa sesi´ón. Muy buen aporte lo de contar una historia. English Translation: “It is true, stories , arouse more interest in what is going to work. What we do with school principals parameterized , it has to be with a film or video, or other material that relates to the theme to work on that session . Very good supply it to tell a story .”

  • Nerlene Sampson

    I think that beginning the lesson with a story is a wonderful idea and will definitely include this in my lesson planning

  • MJF

    This was great, I will apply this to my class and see how it will transform my students, into sharing …

  • Jennifer R. Zunikoff

    I am a professional storyteller who trains teachers to use storytelling in the classroom. Thank you for this article. I will definitely share it with the teachers I mentor. Teacher storytelling leads to student storytelling. When students learn through stories, students learn to teach through stories. When students have the opportunity to appreciate the power of their own storytelling and the storytelling of their peers, each member of the class community works to create a safe, lively, teaching and learning environment where each person is invited to be fully present to the material, and toward their teacher and classmates.

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