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Teaching and Learning

The Impact of Storytelling on Learning

The benefits of storytelling in teaching and learning are well established — and digital tools can help make stories more interactive, boost engagement, and convey ideas more effectively. Here's how to make the most of technology and sidestep common mistakes in the use of storytelling for learning.

It is well understood and accepted that as humans, we enjoy hearing and often telling stories. Little children enjoy creative and magical stories and people of all ages enjoy hearing about real life happenings, sad or happy. Indeed, story books are still enjoyed, and new authors are published regularly. Yes, humans and stories are well connected. Many studies have been conducted over the years to explore the reasons why humans enjoy storytelling so much and there are various scientific conclusions in terms of psychological and hormonal responses to storytelling. Tom Corson-Knowles in an article for TCKPublishing writes:

"Stories are central to human cognition and communication. We engage with others through stories, and storytelling is a lot more than just a recitation of facts and events. As human beings, we are automatically drawn to stories because we see ourselves reflected in them."

While there is historic evidence that before we could read and write as humans, stories were what drew us together, explained ourselves, and informed our way ahead, stories remain a strong attraction for us all.

Storytelling and Learning

While we can relate on various levels to why we like stories and are drawn to them, how can storytelling actually benefit learning? Just as there are different types and styles of stories such as fairy tales, historic tales, real life happenings, specific interest stories, religious stories, biographies, and autobiographies for example, so too, how stories can benefit learning varies. In some learning environments, there are varied cultures and languages, there may be factual classes in which students are struggling to understand facts and scientific data, or there may be instances where instructors are trying to find ways to become more accessible and understandable to their students. In other words, just as the human experience is varied, so too are learning environments within which human students and instructors are trying to be understood, included or successful within the group. Vanessa Boris writes in a Harvard Business Blog:

"Telling stories is one of the most powerful means that leaders have to influence, teach, and inspire. What makes storytelling so effective for learning? For starters, storytelling forges connections among people, and between people and ideas. Stories convey the culture, history, and values that unite people."

Educators have realized for many years that learners vary in any class or learning group. Boris adds:

"In any group, roughly 40 percent will be predominantly visual learners who learn best from videos, diagrams, or illustrations. Another 40 percent will be auditory, learning best through lectures and discussions. The remaining 20 percent are kinesthetic learners, who learn best by doing, experiencing, or feeling. Storytelling has aspects that work for all three types."

That is because of how stories connect with our emotional and psychological thoughts and feelings, and through internal responses to pictures evoked through recognizable life experiences and mental pictures. Therefore, the highly involved aspects of stories engage more students and help them feel involved in their learning process. Instructors may use the phrase, "Let me explain it this way…" then use a story that includes the facts or data used within a course of study in a more recognizable setting that helps better explain the meaning of what is being learned. Additionally, asking students to share a story from their own lives or lived experience can help include students more directly into their own learning and provide them with an individual voice in the learning group.

Digital Storytelling

Although storytelling is not a new idea, using it as a serious learning tool has often been the case in more literary courses only. Or in classes of small children. The benefits of storytelling in learning are currently more widely scoped than that and now with digital tools, can become increasingly effective. Digital storytelling includes the same purposes and elements of regular stories but uses various digital tools to create and relay the stories. Interactive technology can immediately include the viewer to become a participant and even include their own information to the story. provides a lot of helpful information on digital storytelling, including a breakdown of the tools and media used to tell stories or present ideas: audio capture devices (e.g. microphones and voice recorders), image capture devices (such as digital cameras and scanners), computers (with multimedia capabilities and ample storage), and digital media software (for creating and editing image, video, and audio).

As with any effective use of storytelling, digital storytelling must not totally rely on digital tools, images, sounds and applications to engage, but must be well organized and designed purposefully with:

  • A starting point that provides a "doorway" into a story;
  • A main flow or progression that moves the viewer forward; and
  • A possible conclusion or debate point from which other stories can unfold or be developed.

The benefit of digital tools is that all of these can be integrated and immediate for the participant. The article explains:

  • "Engagement opportunities. A good digital story allows viewers to interact through a number of engagement opportunities. These opportunities can include sharing information through social media, sharing comments, subscribing to podcasts, and even contributing content.
  • "Technical structure and organized content. According to Santos Miran [Santos Miran, V. (2016, February 24). Five elements of a good digital story. mStoner.] a strong technical foundation is essential to a good digital story. Technical tools that can contribute to an effective digital story include a customized content management system, collaboration tools, and an analytics framework for measuring audience behavior.
  • "Visual design. Digital stories should encourage easier reading as well. This is achieved through the use of clear space and the careful selection of fonts and type size. A digital story's visual design should also be optimized for various touch-enabled devices, different viewports, and varying download limitations."

While digital tools evolve rapidly, there are several useful tools listed for teachers and students by Med Kharbach (2022). These include:

  • StoryboardThat – this storyboard design tool helps to support good design and planning for effective storytelling.
  • Canva – this provides already developed templates to use in any story design and development.
  • Adobe Spark – useful if you are already familiar with Adobe products.

There are other products listed and explained on the site for comic story development, animated stories and cartoon-style designed stories.

Frequent Mistakes in Using Storytelling in Learning

While we can agree that storytelling is enjoyable and we can share great memories of how we enjoyed stories in our past or how we would like to share stories now in our learning experiences, the assumption is that the stories are created and shared well and effectively. What, then, are the main ways in which stories can be used ineffectively or negatively? Here are several mistakes than can easily be made and should be avoided as follows:

Be culturally appropriate. It is vitally important that any stories used in a learning environment should be inclusive of all learners in the class or group. Every student is different and there may also be clear cultural differences represented in the group. Therefore, words, phrases, examples, images used should not be hurtful or exclusive of any students in the group.

Be age appropriate. Words, images, inferences, or meanings of story characters or actions should be appropriate for the ages of those who will view and engage with the story.

Avoid focusing on only your own interests. It can be a fault of storytellers to be self-indulgent in story content. When this happens, others can become bored, disengaged, or confused as to the meaning or the story.

Stay focused and on topic. In order to truly support learning, then what is being learned should be focused on throughout the story. If the story focus is varied, then the effectiveness in learning will be compromised.

Be careful with humor.While we can enjoy humor, if humor is used incorrectly, then it can be hurtful and cause offense. If only one person is laughing, then usually the humor is not being used effectively.

Be careful with personal information.Remember that a class or learning group is a general community and, therefore, personal information should not be shared carelessly. This can lead to individuals being offended or embarrassed or even marginalized.

Be responsible with copyrights. When someone else's work is used in any way, then the source should always be referenced. This is true even if the story itself is a newly created piece.

These kinds of mistakes should be shared with students so that even stories created by students can avoid them. While stories can be effective, they can also be extremely ineffective when created or used carelessly or hurtfully.

Is Storytelling Essential to Learning?

While stories may not be essential to learning, they are extremely effective in engaging students and involving every kind of learner and thinker. In an online environment, the use of videos can encourage student interest and even in an in-person class group, the use of stories can enlighten and help support students understanding and success. The eLearning Coach provides a helpful list of reasons why we need to use storytelling in learning. The list includes the importance of stories in engaging and including students, but it also includes reference to how stories can help students process and understand what they otherwise might perceive as "meaningless data":

"Many people perceive data as meaningless numbers. This happens when the data is disconnected to anything important in their experience. But when the data is placed in the context of a story, it comes alive."

Lubbock Christian University also emphasizes how storytelling can develop additional skills in students, such as good listening skills and critical thinking skills. So, if stories used are creative, applied in their content, and detailed, students are encouraged to think through the story to find its meaning and connection with what is being learned. The article lists intellectual benefits to storytelling that are not subject-specific, but intellectually beneficial:

  • "Promotes a desire to read – Many stories shared orally with children come from books. These storytelling experiences lead children to want to see and read the books with these same stories for themselves.
  • "Stimulates the imagination – Children learn to picture the stories in their heads as they listen to stories being told. The skill can transfer as they hear and eventually read stories from books.
  • "Contributes to a love of language – As children are exposed to interesting words, they become interested in using these same words or phrases as they retell the stories or use language to communicate about their experiences with others.
  • "Contributes to emotional development – Children empathize with the plight of characters as they listen during the storytelling experience. They develop an awareness of how their own words and actions can affect others."

What Does This Mean for Learning in General?

So, whether stories are being used by instructors or students, and being used in scientific, fact-based courses or creative writing courses, when they are developed well and used in connection with what is being learned, they can be highly successful in helping students learn focused subject information. Additionally, they can develop general thinking and linguistic skills that can benefit lifelong learning.

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