By Maryrose Chaaban and Julie Allen

Storytelling is a universal and fundamental element of the human experience. Stories are ubiquitous and can be found throughout history and in cultures all around the world. Storytelling is how we express ideas, share experiences, teach our children, entertain others, and make sense of complex human experiences.

If we consider stories from an evolutionary perspective, we could even tout stories as a tool for survival. For example, they may have helped instruct what foods were safe to eat and what ones should be avoided altogether. It’s not hard to imagine someone saying “Don’t eat those red berries. Old man Gallagher died after eating them.”

Tell me the facts and I’ll learn. Tell me the truth and I’ll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever. Native American ProverbFor the purposes of this article though, we are most interested in how stories can be a tool for learning. Neuroscientific research shows that stories have the ability to activate more areas of the brain than mere recitation of facts or figures. Stories have the capacity to capture our attention, stimulate our imagination, challenge our views, alter our perceptions, and encourage new learning and discovery (Owen, 2004; Alterio & McDrury, 2003).

Research has also shown that stories have the ability to build empathy and a sense of responsibility, especially when interactive stories are used (Green & Jenkins (2014). Putting the learner in an active role is a powerful way to expose them to different points of view. Interactive stories help learners experience events, make decisions, and see the potential consequences in a safe environment. Moreover, learners have the ability to see how different decisions can lead to different outcomes.

Story-based interventions or activities can also lead to important and lasting changes in people’s behavior (Ricketts, 2014). Stories and patient narratives are increasingly being used to train aspiring medical professionals. It helps them develop a deeper understanding of certain issues and experiences; encourages critical thinking and problem-solving skills; and helps to close the gap between human experiences and the theories used to explain them.

As educators, we can harness the power of storytelling in our courses to engage learners, develop empathy, and activate deep learning. Don’t worry if you don’t feel like you’re a natural-born storyteller or that you don’t have a lot of time. The purpose of this article is to provide you some simple tips to help you get started and a framework for storytelling.

Design with Storytelling

Every discipline can benefit from stories. Here are some suggestions on how you can incorporate stories into your own courses:

  • Infuse your lectures with a personal story or anecdote that highlights how you solved a problem, applied the content being learned, or overcame a challenge related to the topic.
  • Record an interview with a subject matter expert or guest lecturer and invite them to tell stories about their own experiences.
  • Create discussion prompts that encourage students to share their own personal or professional experiences.
  • Create scenario-based assignments that require students to apply real-world skills or create materials they could use in their professional career, such as a job aid or a website.
  • Create branching scenarios using a third-party tool, such as:
    • Twine: Open-source tool that allows you to create interactive, branching-type activities.
    • Articulate: Authoring tool that allows you to easily create branching scenarios either by using the scenario block in Articulate Rise or by starting from scratch with Articulate Storyline. This tool requires a license.
    • MuzzyLane: Authoring tool that allows you to create branching scenarios or simulations using their templates and characters. This tool requires a license.

Framework for Storytelling

If you decide to create a complex or branching-scenario-type activity, you may find it helpful to have a framework for building your story in a way that encourages learning. In his article “Learning from Storytelling”, Nick Coates (2017) provides a simple framework that is effective for integrating storytelling into online learning.

  • Situation: The characters and the setting for the story are established.
  • Inciting Incident: This is an event that hooks the learner into the story and sets the wheels into motion.
  • Conflict: This is the challenge or issue the character is trying to solve. The conflict is intended to elicit an emotional response from readers.
  • Resolution: This is the action the character takes to overcome the challenge or resolve the issue.
  • Lesson Learned: This is the lesson that was learned as a result of the overall experience.

Storytelling for You

Are you looking for inspiration or have a great example to share? We have set up a Google Sheet entitled Storytelling for You to encourage a community of practice around storytelling for learning. The purpose of this is to crowdsource ideas that educators can use to share and receive inspiration.

Additional Resources

Here are some additional resources on storytelling we highly recommend you check out:


Alterio, M. & McDrury, J. (2003). Learning through storytelling in higher education: Using reflection & experience to improve learning. London and Sterling, VA: Kogan Page.

Coates, N. (2017). Learning from storytelling. Research World, 2017(62), 46-49.

Green, M., & Jenkins, K. (2014). Interactive narratives: Processes and outcomes in user‐directed stories. Journal of Communication, 64(3), 479-500.

Owen, N. (2004). More magic of metaphor: Stories for leaders, influencers and motivators. New York, NY: Crown House Publishing.

Ricketts, M. (2015). Using stories to teach safety. Professional Safety, 60(5), 51-57.

About Us

Maryrose Chaaban Arcuria is a Senior Instructional Designer with EdPlus at Arizona State University. She has more than ten years of experience in the instructional design field. She loves collaborating with faculty, multimedia specialists, and graphic designers to design and develop innovative and engaging learning experiences that will provide learners the knowledge and skills they need to be successful in their personal and professional lives.

Julie Allen is an Instructional Designer with ASU Library. She began her career as a journalist before transitioning into the field of instructional design more than 10 years ago. She has worked for a variety of institutions, and she is passionate about creating digital learning experiences that are rigorous, engaging, and meaningful to students.