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Why Stories Help Students Learn

Here, the neuroscience behind the power of story — plus 8 storytelling tips from Claremont Graduate University’s Professor Paul J. Zak.

stories help students learn
Before there were classrooms or colleges, there were stories. That’s how we shared information, distributed news, and passed down our histories from generation to generation. Storytelling was the first teaching tool.

Sure, you can shower your next lecture with facts, soaking your students with data droplets and hoping that their minds will act as buckets, retaining what you share until the bucket is full for that day. But our brains are structured so that not only do we engage better but we also retain knowledge better when we’re presented with a narrative.

The moral of the story: If you want to be effective as an instructor, science suggests that you start your lecture with a story.

Getting their attention

As the educator, you’re in charge of creating interest in the topic, so start by asking yourself:

  • Why should my students care? (And why do I?)
  • How can they relate this to their own lives and experiences?
  • What can I do to bring the topic to life so that none of them will scan up their smartphones out of boredom?

“Telling your class a story will [impact] the two things that make us remember and act on information,” says Claremont Graduate University Professor Paul J. Zak, PhD, scientist, entrepreneur, and author of several books, including Trust Factor: The Science of Creating High-Performance Companies. “You’ll activate both attention and emotion.”

In his studies, Dr. Zak has discovered that the key to motivating someone is triggering attention — not always the easiest thing to convince a student’s brain to do. After you have their attention, the next step is engaging your listener’s emotions through narrative.

We’ve all experienced the strong impact a story has on us, whether we’re reading a book, listening to grandparents share tales of their childhood, or watching television characters escape a scary situation. In fact, we tell stories about our lives all day long, whether it’s what happened at work that day or how we met our significant other or what we tell ourselves inside our own heads to make sense of life events.

We’ll get to the how-to of being a better storyteller later. For now, let’s look at why storytelling works so well.

Engaging the brain (because: neuroscience)

In scientific terms, areas related to language and comprehension, known as Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas, are stimulated even when we listen to a boring presentation (think: someone droning on and on with no personality while pointing to scribbled points on a whiteboard). It should come as no surprise that listening to someone weave a quality narrative has a bigger impact.

As brain research such as Dr. Zak’s has shown, our brains light up in a much more engaged way when we are being told a story. Just hearing about events in a story triggers the same parts of the brain that we’d use to experience them if they were happening in our real lives.

Stories allow us to feel the information, which in turn triggers the release of oxytocin (a feel-good hormone in the brain), which then causes us to engage with and remember the stories better. (This oxytocin release has also been shown to make humans more empathetic toward and connected to each other.)

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Creating (or relating) a powerful tale

What exactly makes a good story? When you stop and break down the components, you think of a strong beginning, middle, and end, right? Compelling characters. Specific images. A narrative flow that allows the listener to imagine they are in your shoes. Dramatic tension so that your rapt students find themselves empathizing with the characters in the situation … and eager to learn how the conflict you’ve presented will be resolved. Here are some of the secrets to bringing these into being.

1. Make it personal and relatable.

Ask yourself: What does this lesson/subject/topic mean to me? First, spend time with your curriculum and build your own stories out of and around the information you plan to share. What moves you about the information? If you’re not moved by it, then why would you expect your students to be? Find real-world examples that bring the information alive.

2. Open with a bang.

Find a dramatic moment to kick-start the narrative, just like the best books and films do. Determine what’s at stake for the characters involved. Zero in on the conflict. How will this situation impact real people? Then you can work toward how the crisis is resolved.

3. Make sure it’s relevant.

When you’re sharing your story in the classroom, it needs to fit with the points you’re trying to make. Don’t settle for a non sequitur attention-grab for wide-eyed focus on your every word. There’s no point telling your students how you narrowly escaped a car accident if that has nothing to do with the lesson at hand.

“The story you share with your class has to be congruent with the idea that you’re trying to push forward, so you can’t have anomaly,” says Dr. Zak. “The story should tie into an overall theme about something relevant for the students.”

4. Build “characters” they’ll care about.

Think of a movie that resonates with you: Why does it do that? Chances are, it’s because there’s a hero and they are going through something emotional — and we can all relate to emotions. So, while you’re at it, add as many emotions, specific images, and details as you can.

“When it comes to what students will retain, think of a memory as a ball, a sphere,” says Dr. Zak. “Emotions are like spikes in that sphere. It’s easier to pull out the memories, the more spikes you have.”

5. Make every second count — but don’t worry about length.

There’s no best practice for how long your story should be. We’ve all seen speakers who enthrall a room over the course of an hour as well as those who light up our imaginations in a mere five minutes.

“From a brain perspective, a good story is a good story is a good story,” says Dr. Zak. “I’ve heard one-minute stories that are fantastic and memorable. Hit hard, hit ’em fast. More is not always better.”

Length depends on the storyteller. If it’s a fantastic story, then maybe there’s no time limit. But if you’re not sure, it’s usually better to err on the side of brevity.

6. Do an eye check.

Scan the class and see if you catch anyone’s eyes wandering away from you. In terms of feedback, you can usually tell if your story is resonating or not. These days, once you see eyes zooming toward smartphones with LED lights creating a glow in the audience, you know you’ve lost them. “Fidgeting and engaging with devices are signs that it isn’t working,” says Dr. Zak. “There are all sorts of ways to use physical space to engage people more.”

7. Put your whole body into it.

In addition to boosting your energy and making sure that you are firing on all narrative cylinders (e.g., using specific details, heightening the conflict so listeners will want to know how the story resolves), Dr. Zak suggests using your physical presence as much as your words. Don’t stand behind a lectern. And don’t just stand beside it either.

Get out in front so your students can see you. Or perhaps go into the audience, so you can share your story up close and personally.

8. Get creative with your word choices.

There’s evidence that it makes sense to choose your words carefully, just like a great writer does. Skip the overused phrases and jargon. Those don’t tend to stimulate emotion in the brain. Use creative, powerful words that will surprise your students and boost your storytelling prowess (and maybe their vocabulary).

When you start your lecture with a story, you give your class an unforgettable experience that will stay with them long after you’ve left the room.

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