Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Power of Story and Anecdotes

Do you know how MSG (monosodium glutamate, a common flavor enhancer added to food) was discovered? Do you know we can produce sugar from starch – any starch? Do you know the history of food canning? Do you know that everything flows, even the mountain – if we wait long enough? Do you know…OK, let me tell you an interesting story…here goes...

I like stories and I think students of all ages also love stories. In fact, one of the classroom techniques that I personally have found most rewarding is the anecdotal and storytelling. Science is full of interesting stories and anecdotes that can spice up and enlighten ordinary lecture/presentation into a memorable one. So whenever possible, I like to start my lecture or presentation by asking question or telling story and anecdotes. Judging from students’ response and facial expression, I would say that most of the time (perhaps all the time) the students enjoy listening to the story. From my experience, every time when I tell a story or anecdotes in my lecture most students would listen intently. You don’t have to be Tom Cruise or Nicole Kidman to lighten up your class room (although my students would be enthralled if they were around!). All that is needed for the storytelling approach is a pool of stories and a little narrative ability (that’s all I have really…only a LITTLE narrative ability).

I think telling a story is an effective way to draw students’ attention because I can engage them more readily in the learning process – it’s a valuable way to make the learning environment exciting, encourage learning, and also a way to put things into perspective. Let me give one simple example. I teach a course on “Starch Chemistry and Technology”. Starch is a type of carbohydrate that we can find in bread, rice, cereals, etc. Starch in our food is a very important component because it provides the essential energy for our daily lives activity.  I want to emphasize to my students that starch is actually a form of storage energy in plant and this energy can be released and harnessed by our system by “breaking down” starch into sugar! As an analogy, it is like chemical energy stored in a battery which can be converted into electrical energy. The challenge is how to explain this important fact by making it as a lively and interesting story? Well, I do have a story to tell but the bottom line is I can whet the appetite of the students to learn more about the chemistry and technology of starch. To ensure your storytelling or anecdote will capture and captivate the attention of the students (or audience, if you are giving a presentation), it is important to rehearse it beforehand because when you start telling the story, you have to deliver it smoothly, coherently, convincingly, and enlighteningly!

From my limited reading on the use of storytelling in education, I found that many researchers regarded it as one of the most appropriate pedagogical approaches for teaching and learning of science at all levels of education. According to Gere, storytelling involves imagination and the use of language and gestures to create scenes in the mind of the listener. The magic of story time is that it exercises the powerful muscle of the imagination, which is the center of being human.

Some advantages of using storytelling in a classroom can be listed as follow:
  • Storytelling stimulates the imagination. Scientist Albert Einstein said that "imagination is more important than knowledge.”
  • Stories go straight to the heart. Because students are emotionally involved and truly enjoy storytelling, it can help to create a positive attitude toward the learning process.
  • Storytelling engages students and encourages them to think critically, to analyze evidence, and finally, to develop positive attitudes towards science and the place of science in human culture (Kokkotas, 2010).
According to Hadzigeorgiou (2006), the beginning of the story is crucial and decisive for activating the imagination of students. In the main part of the story, the concepts to be taught should be interrelated and expressed in a clear structure. The end of the story should include an ethical message or idea for the learners. The aims are not only to create perspectives, hopes, motivations, and wonder for the students, but also to facilitate their acquiring a deeper understanding and remembering of the concepts.

In my subject area (food science), there are a number of interesting stories I can share with my students. In other areas such as pure sciences (biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics), engineering, medical, social science, humanity, etc., there are even more stories that can be used to spice up the class room. I would encourage educators to incorporate stories and anecdotes into your classroom because you can certainly make learning exciting and fun for your students.

Here are some links and references if you want to learn more:
  • Folino, A.A.  (2001). Stories and Anecdotes in the Chemistry Classroom. Journal of Chemical Education, 78(12), 1615-1617.
  • Green, M.C.  Storytelling in Teaching (very interesting and comprehensive article – highly recommended).
  • Gere, J., Beth-Ann Kozlovich, Daniel A. Kelin II. By Word of Mouth: A Storytelling Guide for the Classroom.
  • Hadzigeorgiou, Y. (2006). Humanizing the teaching of physics through storytelling: The case of current electricity. Physics Education, 41(1), 42-46.
  • Kokkotas, P., Rizaki, A., Malamitsa, K. (2010). Story telling as a Strategy for Understanding Concepts of Electricity and Electromagnetism. Interchange, 41(4), 379-405.
I found some interesting presentations about storytelling on SlideShare:


  1. Totally agree! Story telling has been the ultimate learning method since Adam & Eve, but somehow many in higher education forgot about it as they innovated the way we learn. But in the last few years again they are rediscovering this powerful approach of learning.

    In short, humans are genetically engineered to be receptive and inspired from stories.

    Let's use them to good effect in teaching and learning :)

    Thanks for sharing :)

  2. If only educators are willing to go a great length and be resourceful, teaching can be made multi-dimensional and less predictable. By "less predictable" I mean students cannot predict what the teacher will do in the next lecture because it's always different every time. Telling a story is not for the sake of doing it for fun but in the context of the topic. This is a way of "teaching beyond the textbook".

  3. Hi!
    I've found your blog, a couple of weeks ago, and I love it!, I follow each of your post because each of them teachs me something new, thank you very much!
    I'm interested in everything related with storytelling, that's why I like so much this post, and all the links you share here,
    It's also reminds me about the work of Roger Schank and his "Story-Centered Curriculum" project:

    Thanks and have a great week!
    Greetings from Argentina

  4. Hi Veronica, thanks for your comment and for following this blog. Thank you for sharing the link as well. I guess this is what connected world is all about. Apart from storytelling and anecdote, I think using analogy and metaphor also can be very useful.