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Learning through storytelling

Sector Snapshot Getting Started Next Steps Talk and Share

What is learning through storytelling?

Learning through storytelling refers to a process in which learning is structured around a narrative or story as a means of ‘sense making’. It involves the use of personal story and anecdotes to engage learners and share knowledge. Stories are everywhere in human life and can be termed narrative case study life history myth anecdote legend scenario illustration or example storytelling and/or critical incident. ‘Stories’ can be ‘told’ in many ways – spoken written filmed mimed acted presented as cartoons and/or as new media formats (Moon 2010).

Where does learning through storytelling come from?

The art of storytelling has always been an essential part of being human. Before the advent of the written word storytellers were viewed as special members of society. Storytelling was viewed as a vocation and storytellers were required to develop skills in the appropriate use of language communicating with impact insight and sensitivity. In addition storytellers were required to develop their memory and visualisation skills and use these skills to paint a picture in the mind of their audience a picture through which they might simplify complex issues enhancing their accessibility and meaning (Egan 1989). In some communities the appointment of the leader was “based largely on their proficiency as a storyteller” (Parkin 1998).

Although educators have always used storytelling as a way of sharing information and helping their learners to make sense of issues until recently these stories often occurred spontaneously and were considered too lightweight to be integral to learning and teaching activities (McDrury and Alterio 2002). However with the growing awareness of the need for reflection within learning and the recognition that meaningful links need to be created between theory and practice the potential for learning through storytelling is beginning to be recognised (Clandinin and Connelly 1990; McDrury and Alterio 2002; Pendlebury 1995; and Witherell and Nodding 1991). Storytelling is now being used in a reflective creative and formalised manner to facilitate learning within the realms of science medical training in business schools and executive education as well as in the more obvious realms of English Languages Arts and Drama. Anthropologist Peg Neuhauser describes how

stories allow a person to feel and see the information as well as factually understand it … because you ‘hearthe information factually visually and emotionally it is more likely to be imprinted on your brain in a way that it sticks with you longer with very little effort on your part. (Neuhauser 1993 p.4)

How does storytelling work?

The essential components of a story (McAdam 1993; Ganz 2010) are:

  • character(s);
  • a plot – beginning middle and end;
  • a challenge;
  • a choice;
  • a resolution.

Stories are effective tools for learning due to their ability to facilitate the following cognitive processes: i) concretizing ii) assimilation and iii) structurizing (Evans and Evans 1989).

i)             Concretizing – stories help us to make sense of what might otherwise be an abstract or complex subject through the provision of links with tangible or concrete examples. For example the story of the impact of the market upon healthcare can provide a concrete example of marketization within the public sector something which may otherwise seem hard to conceive of.

ii)            Assimilation – learning is a constant process of integrating new information with current information and cognitive structures (cf.  'scaffolding' and Piaget’s stages of learning). The use of a story particularly a well-known story or one to which everyone can relate can be an effective way of introducing a new topic to learners or enabling them to see earlier information through a new perspective. For example the scene from Alice in Wonderland where Alice meets the Cheshire Cat and asks for directions is a familiar story which can take on a new perspective if introduced to us as adults within the framework of ‘goal setting’.

iii)           Structurizing – the use of stories in teaching can support students in applying the concepts they have been taught to use in other situations not directly related to the initial context (Parkin 1998). Simons (1984) explored the power of story for teaching complex subjects such as electricity. He tested 61 students and followed the teaching with 40-item multiple choice tests. The results of Simon’s study found that teaching using stories led to improved performance in all students with those who learnt from story having a more tangible grasp of the topic and of the relationship between concepts than those whose learning did not involve story.

Sector Snapshot

Where is it currently being used?

Learning from storytelling is gaining in popularity in a number of areas. In the realm of executive education and leadership development storytelling is gaining increasing credence as part of the discipline of “leadership as performance” (Peck and Dickinson 2009) and forms a central part of leadership development within the public sector for example the NHS Leadership Academy Nye Bevan and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson programmes. See:
‘Digital storytelling’ – that is the construction of short stories through the use of programmes which combine photographs or other visual material with audio or text content – has been used to good effect within higher education and reflects the growing use of new technologies to assist with learning. Notable examples include a project run in collaboration between Sheffield Hallam University Faculty of Health and Wellbeing and Pilgrim Projects Limited in Cambridge in which students supported health and social care users in making digital stories with a reported improvement in self-esteem and confidence (

Internationally storytelling has been utilised as a means of developing literacy with aboriginal youth in Canada (McKeogh et al. 2008). 

What are the potential benefits of learning through storytelling?

When storytelling is formalized in thoughtful and meaningful ways it captures … everyday moments and turns them into learning opportunities. (McDrury and Alterio 2003)

The previous section describes how storytelling can be used to facilitate learning. Storytelling however is able to do more than this; stories can encourage engagement and capture flagging attention; storytelling can encompass the dbigger picture’ including affect values and other unspoken material (Moon 2010). Bruner (1986 p. 14) portrays the way in which storytelling can link fiction/non-fiction and action and reflection when he describes how fiction develops “the outer landscape of action and the inner one of thought”. Mattingly (1990) describes the use of story to facilitate sense-making and learning in action research projects with professionals from the world bank and relates how the act of telling and hearing stories provided a springboard for change on both an organisational and personal level. Similarly Boje (2001) describes how stories can be used to facilitate change through enhancing powers of reflection. Alterio (2003) in a useful guide on the HEA website (see below) advocates storytelling as a way of developing critical thinking skills through its facilitation of a consideration of events from the perspective of more than one character.

Getting Started

How do I get started with this topic?

Stories come in many shapes and forms and can serve a variety of purpose so it is important to choose your story well. Some questions you may wish to consider before starting include the following:

  1. Is storytelling the most compelling and memorable way for this group of students to learn about this topic and if so why?
  2. What form of storytelling best suits the students' learning needs and objectives?
  3. What outcomes do I want this group of students to achieve?
  4. Will these outcomes be assessed and if so how?
  5. What forms of support are needed?
  6. How can confidentiality and anonymity issues be addressed?
  7. Whose story do you want to use? Your own? A fictional story? A story from practice? The student’s story?
  8. What is the key lesson that you wish your story to convey?
  9. Do you have time to plan your story or would a spontaneous story fit the time and purposes more effectively?

What should I expect if it try this approach?

While some students may feel very comfortable in hearing and telling stories others may require more support and assistance in order to gain maximum learning benefit from this tool. Creating an environment in which students feel ‘safe’ to share stories is important and will owe a lot to the way in which you approach stories yourself. When students tell and process their stories they may experience strong emotions such as anger frustration or sadness; stories that may sometimes be connected to past and perhaps unresolved experiences. If emotional aspects become overwhelming and beyond the educator’s capability to manage it is essential that students have access to appropriate support such as trained counsellors. Similarly the act of listening to stories can also evoke strong emotional reactions. Sometimes tellers’ stories connect with listeners’ experiences and trigger emotional reactions or unresolved aspects that also need addressing.

Next Steps

Where can I learn more?

Maxine Alterio’s guide to the use of storytelling on the Higher Education Academy (HEA) website provides an excellent introduction to the subject. In addition there are a number of websites relating to storytelling and its use in education and these are also listed below.

What other topics might I find interesting?

Action learning

Collaborative learning

What HEA resources should I take a look at?

Alterio M. (2003). Using Storytelling to Enhance Student Learning. Higher Education Academy:

How else can the HEA support my professional development?

The UKPSF provides the framework for recording aspects of professional practice where Maker Culture could be included. Find out more about UKPSF.

Come to a HEA event to share your experiences with your peers – See

In your social media share your experiences of Maker Culture – you can tweet about it and include the #HEA to share it with those following the tag or perhaps you can submit a guest blog posting through us. See 

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The materials published on this page were originally created by the Higher Education Academy.