Boost Student Engagement, Learning, and Connection Through Storytelling

Photo credit: Paul H. Joseph / UBC Brand & Marketing

By Christine Goedhart

I was sitting in the back of a large lecture classroom one day when something striking happened. We were about halfway into a 50-minute class session and I could tell that the students were getting a bit distracted—some students had picked up their phones and were scrolling under the table, some with laptops had clicked over to non-course websites (including a student who was shopping for shoes), and others had started shifting their gaze around the room to see what people around them were doing.

The instructor in the front of the room had been working her way through a slide deck about chemical bonds, but at this moment she took a break from covering the content on one of the slides and turned her entire body and focus toward the students. She began to describe in vivid detail a time in graduate school when she accidentally caused an explosion by mixing together two incompatible substances, and in near unison, I saw the students shift their eyes from their smartphones, laptops, and neighbours, and focus their attention her and on what she was saying. Everyone in the room seemed to come together to share in this story, and when the instructor explained the chemical reason for the explosion, I could see several students nodding their heads in understanding.

As an observer in the classroom that day, I was amazed at how a simple story could have such an enormous effect. Students had been struggling to stay engaged and understand the information when it was presented in a factual way, but when the information was presented in the context of a story, students were able to pay attention, relate to the course material, and share a common learning experience with their instructor and peers.

This experience reminded me that we can use the power of stories to engage students, facilitate their learning, and connect with them on a human level.

Our brains are programmed to respond to stories, and we’re much more likely to understand and remember something if it is communicated to us in the form of a story. It’s not surprising, then, that storytelling has been used for thousands of years as the primary vehicle for transferring and passing down information, ideas, values, and culture.

So, what is it about stories that makes them so engaging?

The fundamental power of stories is their ability to make the abstract come to life. This is especially important in science, which tends to be filled with facts and technical information that can be difficult to relate to and understand, especially if it is at a scale that is outside of our human experience (e.g., molecular or global). But if information is presented in the context of a story, then we have a way to place it within our current frame of understanding and it can start to take on meaning.

Stories can also facilitate learning in the following ways:

  • They enable the use of higher-order thinking – they allow us to connect ideas, infer patterns, investigate phenomena, and explore complexity.
  • They facilitate memory and recall – we are more likely to remember something if it is relayed in the form of a story.
  • They make things more interesting and engaging – we are innately drawn to stories and they grab our attention. Everyone loves a good story!
  • They allow us to connect with one another – we use stories to form bonds with others, see things from different perspectives, and better understand the human experience.

Incorporating storytelling into your teaching is also a way to promote equity and inclusion, as it makes the course content more accessible to students and can be used to include representation of marginalized identities and address issues of social justice.

Overall, stories are a powerful way of sharing and comprehending information, and we can use this time-tested tool in a variety of ways to help students bridge the gap between facts and understanding. In the sections below, I outline different ways to incorporate storytelling into your teaching and provide some tips for effectively using stories in your classroom.

Methods for Teaching with Stories

Case studies and Scenarios

Case studies and scenarios allow students to explore and think critically about course content within a real-world context or circumstance. The HHMI BioInteractive site provides resources you can use to support your use of case studies and scenarios, and you can find a vast collection of well-developed and reviewed case studies at the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science (some even produced by your fellow colleagues at UBC!). You can also create your own that are customized to your course or ask students to come up with them as a creative learning exercise.

Historical events

Stories involving historical events are a great way to showcase the process of science, highlight the major developments within a field, and help students understand why things are the way they are today. They can also be used to illustrate the lesser-known and more humanized aspects of science, such as struggle, collaboration, competition, deceit, serendipity, and surprising results. One place to find stories about historical events in science is the Science History Institute (and check out the resources on their Distillations page).

Current events

Bringing in current events that are related to the course content helps to provide relevance and importance to the course material, and students get excited when they see that what they are learning in class has real-world significance. As you engage with the news or popular media, keep your eyes and ears open for anything that relates to your course material, and find ways to incorporate these cutting-edge examples into your course whenever possible.


Science is ultimately done by humans and their stories are part of the scientific process. A great way to bring in these stories is through biographies of scientists, whether they be historical figures or someone living and working in the present day. You can draw on available videos, podcasts, websites, social media sites, and articles that feature stories about people in science. You can also interview someone who is currently working on a topic you are covering in class, invite a guest speaker into your classroom to share their story, or ask students to create a biography of a scientist of their choosing.

Your own personal stories

Finally, you can share your own personal stories and anecdotes of your experiences as a student, researcher, and fellow human being that relate to the course content. This is what the instructor did at the beginning of this article, and it is a great way to connect with your students, build rapport and, quite literally, bring the course material to life.

Tips for Effective Storytelling in the Classroom

Include human characters

As humans, we tend to be interested in other people, which is exemplified by our tendency as babies to preferentially fixate on faces and people. Using human characters (or giving any non-human characters a human dimension) will help students to better connect with them through a shared humanity.

Make the characters relatable

Students are more likely to relate to and empathize with characters who share their various identities, backgrounds, and experiences. Students will also be able to better engage with the story if they find the characters personal and realistic. Characters that exhibit a complex mixture of “good” and “bad” aspects of human nature tend to be more relatable and interesting than one-dimensional characters that are too perfect.

Provide sensory details

Bring your students into the story by offering as much sensory detail as possible. How does it look, sound, smell, feel, taste? Details help the listener paint a picture in their minds, and the more details you provide, the easier it will be for your students to transport themselves into the scene. Also, you have more control over what the listener gets out of the story if you provide more details.

Begin with a moment of unexpected change

To hook your students and grab their attention, involve some drama early on in your story. Whether it be conflict, suspense, mystery, or surprise, having some type of uncertainty will keep students listening and engaged because they will want to know what’s going to happen next. As humans, we are drawn to drama because we like to solve problems, overcome adversity, and see things come to a resolution.

Evoke emotion

Your students are more likely to remember a story if it induces an emotional response in them. This is because feeling emotions allows the person to experience the information, rather than just hear it, and there is evidence that brain regions associated with memory are stimulated when there is an emotional response. However, be aware that certain types of subject matter and the emotions they cause may be triggering for some students, negatively impacting their learning and experience in the course.

Make it interactive

Involving students in the story’s progression can help them to engage with and take ownership of the story. You can ask them to develop predictions about what will happen next, offer ideas for what the protagonist can do, analyze and interpret any data that is produced, and more. Additionally, the active learning involved in interacting with elements of the story will give students the opportunity to practice using information and skills associated with the course material, contributing to their learning.

Start with a story

Starting off a lesson, topic, or even an entire course with a story is a great way to engage students and give them a context for which to take in new information (did you notice that I started this article with a story?). The instructor at the beginning of this article spent valuable class time presenting the course information in a technical and abstract way before sharing her story, but what if she had started off with the story? It probably would have helped the students to engage with and understand the information better, and it would have freed up precious class time for something else that could be more effective for their learning.

In Conclusion

We are programmed to think and learn through stories. Stories make information more accessible, relevant, interesting, and memorable. They bring abstract information and concepts to life and help students connect to you, to one another, and to the world in which they live. I encourage you to harness the power of stories in your classroom, and I hope you find these tips and resources helpful.

Looking for more information on using stories in teaching? Check out the following articles:

McNett, G. (2016). Using stories to facilitate learning. College Teaching, 64:4 184-193.

Kreps Frisch, J., & Saunders, G. (2008). Using stories in an introductory college biology course. Journal of Biological Education, 42(4), 164-169.

Csikar, E., & Stefaniak, J. E. (2018). The utility of storytelling strategies in the biology classroom. Contemporary Educational Technology, 9(1), 42-60.

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