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Once Upon a Time: Integrating Stories into Your Teaching

Amy M. Yorke, PT, PhD, NCS Assistant Professor - University of Michigan-Flint

Molly L. Brennan, MPH Lecturer, Advisor and Student Internship Coordinator - University of Michigan at Flint

If you tell me, it’s an essay. If you show me, it’s a story. —Barbara Greene

Once upon a time there were two teachers who were passionate about their profession and their stories. They set out to share their stories in order to best help their students learn. Intentionally planning and implementing storytelling into a learning experience assisted their student learning. Both teachers were committed to improving the use of stories into their classrooms and so they continued to read and write about the use of storytelling in the classroom. Storytelling became something integral to their teaching pedagogy. Satisfied with continuing to work on storytelling, both teachers went on to live happily ever after in academia. The End.

Storytelling has been around since the beginning of time. Stories have provided a mechanism to pass information down from one generation to the next. Teachers have used stories for centuries in order to facilitate student learning and deliver content. We know that stories commonly make an impression with students allowing them an efficient way of storing, retrieving, and conveying information (Heath & Heath, 2007). How have you used storytelling in your teaching? We have both used storytelling in our respective fields (physical therapy and public health) to help our students understand a complex health care system from both a patient and public health viewpoint. Have you experienced success and frustration when using stories in your teaching? Let’s delve deeper into the use of storytelling in teaching.

What is a good story?

A good story creates interest. It captures our attention. And capturing students’ attention is a critical component of learning (Doyle & Zakrajsek, 2013). What is your favorite story you tell year after year? One of our favorite stories to share is Molly’s story of being diagnosed with an acoustic neuroma, her subsequent surgery, the complications that occurred, and her rehabilitation. Molly has shared her story in Amy’s classes over the last several years to teach content on vestibular disorders, examination, and intervention. Year after year, students consistently provide positive feedback on how listening and working with someone who is “real” provides the ability to learn the information. Intentionally using a story in our teaching provides a structure for remembering course material. The images produced from a good story produce a sensory experience making it easier for our students to recall information (Zull, 2011). Since storytelling is such a part of our lives, it provides a familiar form of sharing information. Sharing stories creates a personal connection, which is also important for learning (Gross, 2014).

What are some of the challenges – and solutions – of using stories in our teaching?

I don’t have enough time: All of us are pressed for time; we feel that we need to deliver a significant amount of information within a short time frame. Consider a topic that year after year students have difficulty learning key concepts. Is there a story you could use that would promote their learning, delivering the content in a method that does not require the student to memorize the 20 PowerPoint slides that it takes you to deliver the information? Will delivering a story improve the delivery of the content that actually promotes learning? Stories don’t have to be long, detailed, or even entertaining. They just have to add value (Heath & Heath, 2007).

I don’t have a story: Some of us might feel we don’t have stories to share or that our stories aren’t good enough.  If I create a story, I am not being honest or truthful with my students. Certainly, being honest is important to maintaining trusting relationships and the respect of our students. But you can certainly let students know that the story you are sharing is fictional (begin with “Once upon a time…”) or that it is someone else’s story (I had a friend who told me about a time when…). The connection of the story to student learning will still be maintained.

How can I improve my stories?

  • Use what they use: As teachers, all of us have to compete for our student attention in a world full of distractions, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube are common places students surf while we are attempting to teach. Consider utilizing these social media platforms in order to deliver your stories. Or, ask students to find and relate a story relevant to the content.

  • Be purposeful: Ensure your students understand the purpose of you telling the story. Provide a prologue to the story that sets the story in the context of the information you are teaching. As you tell the story, ask the students to reflect on what various components of the story mean. At the end of the story, complete an epilogue asking your students to think about how the story links to their previous and new learning.

  • Be clear and succinct: According to Brain Rules by John Medina (2008), humans are only able to pay attention for approximately 10 minutes. Make sure you don’t tell a story that lasts longer than 9 minutes.

  • Practice makes perfect: The more you practice telling a story, the better you will get at it. Don’t be afraid to try it out a few times before you try it out in class. Consider telling it to a colleague and asking for feedback. Record yourself telling the story and listen back. Ask yourself, do I sound engaging? Am I intentional? Do I share the purpose of the story with my students? Do I ask probing questions in the middle of my story?

How can I help my students develop their own stories?

Since we all know stories are powerful for learning, we should consider helping our students develop their ability to create their own stories. Amy has her students create patient stories. She is able to evaluate the students’ critical thinking skills by pointing out inconsistencies in the stories. If our students can begin to create and share their own stories, we can provide the students feedback on their thinking and learning.

Hook your students. Grab their attention. Deepen their learning. Tell a story.


Doyle, T., & Zakrajsek, T. (2013). The new science of learning: How to learn in harmony with your brain. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Gross, A. (2014, June 20). Lilly Conference Keynote Reflection: Grey Matters when Teaching [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Heath, C., & Heath, D. (2007). Teaching that sticks. Retrieved from

Medina, J. (2008). Brain rules. Seattle, WA: Pear Press.

Zull, JE. (2011). From brain to mind: Using Neuroscience to change education. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

1This blog is based in part on a presentation made at the 2014 Lilly Conference in Traverse City, MI.

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