Tips for ensuring stories deepen learning and not just entertain

Young adult female student sitting at a classrrom desk looking down at a paper she is holding

The power of stories to improve learning is increasingly supported by empirical research and many scholars have suggested that stories ought to play a more prominent role in the future of education (e.g., Reiss et al.). Stories are widely regarded by experts as psychologically privileged and, compared to expository methods, are consistently found to be more interesting, more quickly and deeply understood, and more likely to be successfully recalled. This is great news for educators looking for strategies to engage and deepen the learning of their students.

Unfortunately, there is little guidance available for educators on how to effectively use stories in instruction. Although we are continually surrounded by stories in the forms of books, movies, and video games, it can be a daunting challenge to craft a compelling story. Where do good ideas for a story come from? What are the building blocks of a captivating story? And of particular relevance to educators, how do you ensure a story is effective in promoting learning and not just entertaining?

This blog post seeks to provide some answers to these important questions.

Getting story ideas

One method for identifying story ideas, suggested in an insightful article by Jonassen and Hernandez-Serrano, is to engage in a form of cognitive task analysis (71). For example, think about how course material is relevant to the experiences of your students or about ways it connects with current events, perhaps delve into the interesting characters and events that shaped the history of the topic you are teaching, or reflect on your own experiences learning the material and the challenges or surprises you encountered as a student. The goal is to identify potential story ideas that can anchor instruction to problems, events, and characters that are interesting and meaningful to learners.

Another suggestion for generating story ideas is to think of learning objectives as the answer to a problem. Consider the learning objective, “The student will be able to explain the difference between mean, median, and mode.” Assuming you want to incorporate a story-based activity related to this objective, you might start by trying to think of interesting problems or challenges that knowing this information makes solvable  (Bransford et al. 123). For instance, can you imagine a scenario where knowing the difference between these measures of central tendency would be crucial for avoiding a catastrophe? As Daniel Willingham observes, learning objectives are rarely very fascinating on their own, but if you can describe a compelling problem to which the objectives provide an answer, they can often become quite interesting (75).

Building a storyline

Assuming you now have an idea for a story, how do you go about expanding this idea into a compelling storyline? Numerous resources are available that provide helpful guidance on how to craft both simple and complex stories (e.g., Bell, Truby). And while a familiarity with the basic building blocks of stories will not guarantee your story will be a good story, as any aspiring writer can attest, knowledge of these elements is crucial for ensuring that your story has a solid foundation.

The chart below provides a series of questions to get you thinking about the core elements of most successful stories.

Core elements of most successful stories

Creating cognitive work

A good story for learning isn’t simply entertaining, it also needs to elicit appropriate cognitive activity from students. Whether by presenting a challenge to students’ commonsense beliefs, describing a puzzling or counterintuitive problem, or requiring students to anticipate possible outcomes, a story should prompt learners to think meaningfully about relevant instructional ideas. Accordingly, when creating stories for instruction it is vital that you are able to clearly articulate what cognitive work a story is expected to stimulate in your students.

Here are a couple ideas for how to use stories that don’t just entertain, but also deepen learning.

Hook. An effective story hook presents an intriguing problem or direct challenge to students’ beliefs. For example, if you are teaching a section on animal ethics you might begin your instruction with an emotionally compelling story that challenges students’ commonsense belief that it is OK to eat factory farmed meat but morally wrong to harm puppies (e.g., Norcross). In this case, the vivid story generates cognitive dissonance  in students as two strongly held beliefs are placed in direct conflict, motivating learners to think hard about how to resolve the contradiction.

Situate Learning. Stories can be an effective way to enhance engagement in learning activities by providing context and relevance. For example, the story of Moneyball, which describes a small-market baseball team employing statistical techniques to build a competitive roster, could be used as the backdrop of a situated learning activity on linear regression. In this case a student might be placed in the position of a data analyst who is required to apply her statistical knowledge to analyze baseball player data to improve a fictional team’s on-field performance.

Lesson Organizer. Perhaps most ambitiously, a story can be used to provide an overarching organization for the teaching of a topic. For example, one might teach the topic of evolution by couching it within a larger detective story about the search to discover the fossils of a fish predicted by the theory. In contrast to a purely expositional approach, stories can emphasize the underlying motives, struggles, and conflicts involved in historical events or scientific breakthroughs– creating more interesting and memorable connections for students.

In conclusion, I hope this blog was able to provide some useful suggestions for how to use stories in instruction. From crafting an effective storyline, to getting story ideas, and everything in between, a good learning story can be a powerful tool for both engaging students and improving learning outcomes.


About the Author
Jay Lynch

Jay Lynch, PhD

Jay Lynch has worked at Pearson since 2011. He earned his PhD and MA in Philosophy from the University of Colorado at Boulder and his BA at the University of Arizona. Jay has publications in both educational theory and philosophy. His research interests span the field of the learning sciences and he is particularly interested in the topics of desirable difficulties and learning analytics. Jay also has several years of experience applying learning research in the design and development of online courses.




Works Cited

Bell, James S. Plot & Structure: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting a Plot that Grips Readers from Start to Finish. 5th ed., Writer’s Digest Books, 2004.

Bransford, John D., Robert D. Sherwood, Ted S. Hasselbring, Charles K. Kinzer, and Susan M. Williams. “Anchored Instruction: Why We Need It and How Technology Can Help.” Cognition, education, and multimedia: Exploring ideas in high technology, edited by Don Niz and Rand Spiro, Routledge, 1990, pp. 115–141.

Jonassen, David H., and Julian Hernandez-Serrano. “Case-Based Reasoning and Instructional Design: Using Stories to Support Problem Solving.” Educational Technology Research and Development, vol. 50, no. 2, 2002, pp. 65–77.

Norcross, Alastair. “Puppies, pigs, and people: Eating meat and marginal cases.” Philosophical perspectives, vol. 18, no. 1, 2004, pp. 229-245.

Reiss, Michael J., Robin Millar, and Jonathan Osborne. “Beyond 2000: Science/biology education for the future.” Journal of biological education, vol. 33, no. 2, 1999, pp. 68-70.

Truby, John. The anatomy of story: 22 steps to becoming a master storyteller. Macmillan, 2007.

Willingham, Daniel T. Why Don’t Students Like School?: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions about how the Mind Works and What it Means for the Classroom. Jossey-Bass, 2009.