Applying story to your teaching practice

S tory is deeply embedded in the ways that humans communicate. From the ancient cave paintings of Lascaux and the Kimberley, to the films, TV series and novels we consume on an often daily basis. But how does this fit with the disseminating of knowledge by teachers and its uptake by students? And how can you, as an educator, use the power of narrative to engage your students with the materials and assessments that make up your course? This short post is by way of an inciting incident – to start you thinking about the possibilities of story and its application to your teaching practice.

Rock art, such as the Gwion Gwion paintings of the Kimberley, are part of a complex visual and oral storytelling culture.

Story allows us to connect to information, making difficult abstract concepts and theories accessible. Non-literate societies have understood the value of narrative for thousands of years, using oral storytelling to pass complex knowledge about environment, seasons, animals and cultural practice to successive generations (Humacher 2016). These stories shared around campfires, in ceremonies and while performing tasks allow the ‘student’ to grasp and remember details important to their survival and social connection. According to Szurmak and Thuna (2017) ‘[n]arrative makes something more concrete/immediate… contextualises information by creating the framework for students to place the new knowledge into (and thus improve their retention and understanding)… allows students to have more immediate emotional experiences that they can relate to (and therefore remember)’ (pp. 550-551).

Narrative can be used in several different ways to transfer knowledge and allow students to deeply engage with the topic at hand. As Merriam, Baumgartner and Caffarella (2007) note, ‘… storytelling, in various forms—such as fiction… case studies, exemplars from practice, role-playing, or critical incidents—is a common means of engaging students in understanding concepts, principles, or theories’ (pp. 210).

Scenarios or personal accounts can be used as an engagement activity at the start of a lecture or tutorial in order to garner interest in the topic and provide a real-world example of what will be explored. This technique mimics the inciting incident at the start of some works of fiction, which propels the protagonist forward into the narrative, sweeping the reader along with them. As well as preparing students for what will come, this initial story can also be framed as a ‘what would you do given this situation?’ activity, which can allow you to check for prior knowledge.

Industry experts model behaviours through authentic storytelling

 Case studies are used extensively in business education (Trejo-Pech & White 2017) and are a powerful ‘spine’ to attach theories to. RMIT University’s Assessment and assessment flexibility policy (2018) works to ensure relevant and authentic assessment. When case studies are linked to assessment they can be very powerful learning experiences, allowing students to make decisions in a safe environment that will be directly applicable to their future workplaces.

When stories are told by industry experts, such as guest lecturers, another level of authenticity is gained. These experts often bring a wealth of experience and fresh new perspectives. This access to the storytelling performances of experts provides students with ‘a model of how a real practitioner behaves in a real situation’ (Herrington & Herrington 2008, p.71).

Whatever form of narrative you use in the face-to-face teaching or online components of your course, it will help with your students’ general comprehension and retention of the materials they encounter. It will also make your materials more engaging. You may not want to start a campfire in the lecture theatre but employing some of the storytelling techniques mentioned in this blog will hopefully enrich the student experience.


Herrington, A & Herrington, J 2008, ‘What is an Authentic Learning Environment?’, in L. Tomei  (Ed.), Online and Distance Learning: Concepts, Methodologies, Tools, and Applications (pp. 68-77),  viewed 24 September 2018,  <>.

Humacher, D 2016, The Memory Code: how oral cultures memorise so much information, The Conversation, viewed 24 September 2018,  <>.

Merriam, S. B., Baumgartner, L., & Caffarella, R. S. 2007. Learning in adulthood a comprehensive guide (3rd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, viewed 24 September 2018,  <>.

RMIT University 2018, Assessment and assessment flexibility policy, viewed 24 September 2018, <>.

Szurmak, J. & Thuna, M. 2017, Tell Me a Story: The Use of Narrative as a Tool for Instruction, viewed 24 September 2018, <>.

Trejo-Pech, C & White, S 2017, The use of case studies in undergraduate business administration, viewed 24 September 2018, <>.

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