Friday, 6 March 2015

the role of narrative in teaching and learning

Marilla Svinicki writes the recurring column 'Ad Rem' in the National Teaching and Learning Forum. For the last couple of issues she has been writing about the 25 principles of teaching produced by the APA and APS and recently published. In her February 2015 column Marilla discusses the importance of teaching through stories and how the research shows that students learn deeper when the content is contextualized as a story rather than as a list of facts. Doesn't matter how well those facts are organized, they simply will not be remembered - learned - as well as they would be when learned within a narrative. Stories speak to humans. For whatever reason we crave stories in all their forms, TV shows, movies, novels, anecdotes, case studies. I am sure that someone out there knows the academic reason for this propensity. For me, it speaks to my need to make sense of my world and my life. Hearing others' stories helps me place my own personal story in context and helps me make sense of what is happening in my life.

I think this is what makes stories such a powerful teaching tool. This is what makes case studies valuable to student learning - it places a problem in a narrative that draws in the student and engages them in the issue that needs to be addressed. When I teach biochemistry, molecular cell biology, histology, history and theory of biology I try to structure the entire course with some sort of narrative to draw the students into the subject matter. In biochemistry it is following the flow of energy and matter and how organisms have evolved to release that energy in usable forms. In molecular cell biology it is considering the problem of how proteins in all of their myriad forms are able to get to the right place and time. In history and theory of biology it is about how we understand the world through the filter of our experience and theories. In each of these courses, to draw the students into the narrative, I need to provide students with different examples - stories - of how each concept has significance and consequence to how we live our lives.

Narrative plays a powerful role in teaching and learning.


Graesser, A.C. 2009. Inaugural Editorial for Journal of Educational Psychology. Journal of Educational Psychology, 101(2), 259–261.

Svinicki, M. (2015), One Story is Worth A Thousand Pictures?. The National Teaching & Learning Forum, 24: 12.