Connecting with Students Through Story

Published February 3, 2021

Story is one of those elements encountered around every corner, embedded into our lives so deeply that we may not always notice it. It powers every successful advertising campaign and drives our purchasing habits, inspires dinner table conversation as well as the subsequent family arguments, and designs the visuals that flood our sub-conscience as we close our eyes each night.

“Stories are built upon moments that comprise experiences and ultimately leap to the reflective level of stories. ”

Stories are built upon moments that comprise experiences and ultimately leap to the reflective level of stories. These tales are established by both personal experience and by living vicariously through others. But stories are not always incredible tales of heroism and success. Sometimes they are just small, simple “a-ha” moments.

So how can we bring story into our classrooms, and more importantly why does it matter? The topic of storytelling is broad, and you can spend your career researching it. So for the purposes of this blog, to keep this concise, I’m going to focus on three reasons why storytelling matters in a classroom.

Story is convincing

Many times in classrooms you will find these two types of students:

  1. The students that are deeply invested in your discipline and have a strong draw to your course.
  2. The students that are simply there because they have to be.

And yes, there are many students in-between. However, using these two categories, we see a potential problem arise: a problem of resonance. The invested students may resonate with your content quickly (we’ll talk about retention in the third point) and the “simply there” students may struggle to connect at all.  

But what if there was a way to deliver your content to both students while simultaneously convincing them that it is meaningful and important? Stories can be that conduit for your content.

Think about what the purpose of an internship is – to provide students with real-life experience and convince them that what they’ve learned on paper is true in practice. Now take that purpose, and bring it into your course through stories of real-life experience, and begin to convince your students, in turn. You may find that those already-invested students have a new sense of understanding, and those outliers might also begin to connect with your course and understand its importance. These stories can help clear any preconceived notions that students may have about your discipline, while also allowing them to better comprehend a certain topic and how it is put into practice.

Story is visual

What is the most common way we experience storytelling in 2021? Visually. The phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words” rings truer today than ever before. Students are constantly consuming visual content, causing social platforms like TikTok and Instagram to surge to the top of app store charts. And all of these platforms have one thing in common – they are built on storytelling. As you begin to include stories in your courses, consider supporting them with a photo or video, or better yet allow the visuals to tell the story. Include an interesting video that ties your lecture together, or use a photo that shows a moment where you, or someone else, put a topic to practice.

At a very practical level, consider including more visuals in your presentations – this simple addition can help students maintain focus during your class. And have fun with it! Sometimes we all just need a short mental break, and telling a story can be a great distraction. Maybe you know that one of your lectures is going to be particularly long and detailed. Consider adding a short break at the midpoint and show a short funny video, or a photo from your socially-distanced Bills playoff party. Use this moment to tell a story, not necessarily one that is directly related to your course, and give students a moment to relax and relate to you.

Story is unforgettable

Our days are filled with moments, most of which are largely unexciting and forgettable. Occasionally, though, moments stick with us. You may not remember the date that you received your dream job offer, but you remember where you were and what you were doing. You remember the sights outside the window you were standing next to, and what the weather was like. Sights, sounds, scents, they all allow us to recall moments and memories.

So how can we utilize these moments in our classrooms? Information transfer by way of lecture can quickly and unfortunately train students in the art of daydreaming. Have you ever looked across your classroom or Zoom call to find blank stares looking back at you? But what if you were to begin lacing stories throughout your lectures? Take one of your key points and connect it to a moment you’ve experienced, or a story you’ve read about. Tap into the senses of your students and create for them a moment that still bounces around in their mind years after they’ve graduated.

An unforgettable moment becomes a tool of retention when linked to a specific topic or practice. How? Scientifically, storytelling can actually increase the levels of dopamine in your system which helps with focus, motivation and memory. Watch this TEDx presentation to learn more about the science of storytelling:

 Want your students to remember your content? Tell more stories.

“Stories create community, enable us to see through the eyes of other people, and open us to the claims of others.” – Peter Forbes, photographer and author