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Make Learning Stick with Storytelling

Humans love a good story. Stories entertain us and help us make sense of the world. Stories are ‘psychologically privileged’, according to Daniel Willingham (2004), 'meaning that our minds treat stories differently than other types of material’. In short, stories are interesting, easy to understand and memorable, thus learning through stories can improve attention, comprehension and memory.


The familiar narrative

The secret to the story’s success is its narrative structure. There is a beginning (‘Once upon a time…’), a middle (a conflict of some sort) and an end or resolution (‘and they all lived happily even after…‘). Although not all stories follow that traditional structure, it’s a familiar pattern that is frequently mirrored in our own lives. Stories help memory, because they provide a framework we can relate to, according to education consultant and former classroom teacher Judy Willis, who also happens to be a neurologist specialising in brain research regarding learning and the brain. Because all new learning is related to previous learning or understanding, stories give us a hook, 'a way in', when learning information. They also help with recall because stories provide cues. If we remember the first bit of a story, we are likely to remember the rest.

In school, students are often asked to read expository texts, such as extracts from textbooks, reports, which are less memorable than narrative structures. In one study (Graesser et al., 1994, cited in Willingham, 2004), participants remembered 50% more from stories than expository text. This same study concluded that stories are easier to understand and remember than expository text because we know the format, thus aiding comprehension. The structure of a narrative text is more familiar, more frequently encountered and easier to comprehend than expository text (Britton et al., 1983, cited in Willingham, 2004).

storytelling memory strategy tailoredpractice
Using storytelling as a teaching tool has many memory-enhancing advantages.

Emotions, pleasure and connection

'Stories are data with soul,' writes Carmen Gallo, author of Talk Like TED (2014). It’s that soul factor that also aids memory as well as boosting engagement. Stories are emotive and allow us to make predictions and connections. This reward-pleasure response when we predict what will happen next sends our brains a boost of dopamine, according to Willis (2017). There is also a connection between the storyteller and the listener (versus expository text). Another study (Stephens et al., 2010) recorded the brain activity of a woman telling a personal story along with the brain activity of the audience members. It found that brains sync up: ‘When her frontal cortex lit up, so did theirs.' By simply telling a story, the instructor could plant ideas, thoughts, and emotions into the listeners’ brains, reported neuroscientist Uri Hasson (Gallo, 2014, cited in Smith and Evans, 2018, p. 106). Stories create pictures in our minds, drawing on the powers of visuals for memory.

Put it into Prac


You can utilise the power of stories by incorporating them into your teaching. Here are two suggestions:

  1. Relate content to a story: Look for times when you can relate the content you are teaching to a story. When teaching about the periodic table, tell the fascinating story of Dmitri Mendeleev, his poor upbringing, determined mother and a dream that came to him at night about how to position the elements.

  2. Make content sound like a story:

  • The beginning: establish location, characters, time: 'Once upon a time…’

  • Rising action: the plot thickens, there are complications, suspense builds 'Until one day…’

  • Climax: the point of highest tension, the turning point: 'Suddenly…’

  • Falling action: the quick pace to the end

  • Resolution: And they all live happily even after…or not.

TEACH STORYTELLING as Memory Technique

Encourage students to use stories to remember information, adding characters and details. Use the diagram at the start of this blog to recap on all the reasons stories enhance our learning. In my experience, this strategy works best with subjects that do not already include stories. Try using with subjects, such as science (processes like photosynthesis or formulas), geography (the formation of rivers or mountains) or design technology (remembering materials and components).

Below is an example I created with a Year 11 student. We decided to use storytelling to remember ‘how a star is born’, which already sounds like a movie. On the left is the expository text and on the right is the narrative (text found in storytelling) that we created together. Not only did it work (she recalled it when it came up later in a lesson), knowing this strategy helped to build confidence in this student, who was sure she would never remember the info, and taught her a new strategy to use.

Keep in mind

  • Avoid adding too much embellishment in your stories. Although we encourage exaggeration when using stories to memorise, you don’t want students to remember unnecessary or inaccurate details.

  • Storytelling works best with subjects that are not already about stories. Avoid using it with English literature or biographies of people in History, for example.

Further reading

'Ask the Cognitive Scientist: The Privileged Status of Story' by Daniel Willingham (2004). In this article Willingham recommends using the 4 Cs of stories when lesson planning: Causality, Conflict, Complications and Character.


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