Using storytelling to engage students

Ian Wycherley (BS)

The paper discusses the significance of the results of the author telling stories in six different Business School courses. For the purposes of this research, a story is defined as a narrative with a beginning, middle and end, with a definite plotline. Stories can be factual or fictional, since the power of a story often resides in its meaning.

There is ample evidence from the literature that storytelling can be a very effective way of engaging people's attention, especially when compared to methods such as powerpoint. However, our knowledge of what works with particular audiences is limited by a lack of hard evidence. At a time when storytelling of examples may become replaced by powerpoint, it is important that we find out ways to maximise the engagement, reflection and learning of students,

The author told stories tailored to the session's learning outcomes on six different courses. Three of the courses were "hard" subjects. The stories for two economics courses came from factual news items. A spreadsheet course was tied to a story from personal work experience. Three courses were "soft" subjects. A commonly know fable was used for two self-awareness and career courses, whilst personal work experience was used for a course on managing people in groups. The listener's reactions were measured using anonymous electronic feedback in real time using Turning Point software. The measures were on emotional, cognitive and behavioural outcomes. The depth of reflection was also measured for the story itself and after a discussion. The students also gave evaluations on how much the storyteller implied a moral or specific learning outcome.

The main outcome is that most students thought that the story they heard was more useful than standard lecturing with slides for achieving learning outcomes. In discussion, students said that stories would often help them to understand theoretical lecture material by demonstrating its application in personal stories. Some stories produced high emotional and reflective reactions. Others were able to produce positive learning, even though the strongest emotion that the students felt was boredom.

The study provides data to help us understand the impact of telling very different stories to different audiences. The research will help us to unpick some of the factors that lead to a successful engagement with students and positive learning outcomes. It will offer examples that will show how emotional and cognitive engagement may affect learning across a range of fields. It will also highlight the role of the skill of the storyteller and the packaging of relevant material as a story.

The session will stimulate attendees thinking on how they might use stories in different courses across a range of subjects. It will show how powerful storytelling can be. It will offer pointers as to how to set up a story (for example, what is the effect of the storyteller implying a specific moral to the tale, and what might be the difference between using a true personal story versus a general folk tale).