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The Power of Stories: Engaging Students Through Digital Stories

Amy Gross, PhD

The Lilly Conferences on College and University teaching are known for their engaging keynote sessions and faculty led general sessions. However, I have found that I also come home with some key ideas from the informal conversations with colleagues at meals, waiting for sessions to start, or walking through the hallways.

At a conference in Greensboro, NC I had breakfast with a woman who supported technology use on her campus. I asked her about what kinds of new things faculty were doing with technology and she described how some faculty are trying to use digital stories to engage students in new and different ways. Then, when Jeannie Loeb’ keynote described the brain’s natural wiring to attend to storytelling, the thought of using digital stories as a strategy for student’s to create their own stories as a way to engage with and learn content was reinforced– not telling students stories, but having them create their own. As I was reflecting on my key lessons from Lilly, I wanted to learn more about how students might generate their own stories with digital media to actively engage their brains to deepen student learning.

First, let’s think about the power of a story. Stories one of the 6 traits of “stickiness” (Heath & Heath, 2010, Teaching that Sticks. Ideas “stick” (they are learned and remembered) when presented in the form of a story. Stories prompt interest in the subject, elicit emotion, offer surprise or novelty, and cause mental imagery. These are all things that help us learn. Stories can offer a structure from which concepts can be “hung.” For example, when I was a graduate student, an undergraduate statistics class was developed around a fictitious story and database about life forms on other planets. For each lesson, students had to virtually travel to outer space to collect data and apply appropriate statistical equations. So students can “hang” the concept of when to use a t-test to compare alien attitudes from residents of planets “Nebulus” and “Arient.” Stories allow us to make connections and to build on prior knowledge. The good news (from my perspective) is that according to the Heath brothers, the stories we use don’t need to be complex, captivating, or entertaining – just trying will provide value.

Digital storytelling, as a specific technique to engage students in the content, takes storytelling to the next level – asking student to create the story around the course content. Building the story creates an opportunity for discovery – to ask a question, to find an answer, and then to communicate it in a way that is interesting so that others can learn (and the learning will “stick”).

There are some great resources available to help us think about how we might use digital storytelling in our courses. Educause has a brief manuscript describing the 7 Things You Should Know About Digital Storytelling, which provides a nice overview of the concept and the potential as a learning tool. Microsoft also has some nice digital storytelling resources, including an evaluation rubric that could be adapted for many different projects.

One of most thorough resources that I found (and was noted at the above sites as well) was developed by Bernard Robin and his colleagues at the College of Education, University of Houston. The Educational Uses of Digital Storytelling Website. It has recently been updated by faculty members and graduate students in the Instructional Technology Program at the University of Houston. They have a number of examples from many disciplines (including math!) and some great tools and resources that they make available to others to use for educational purposes.

I’m sure there are more information sources and other examples available to get us and our students excited about creating our own stories. What have you found? What do you do in your classes when asking your students to create their own digital masterpieces?

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