If David Chesney is advising students on how to cooperate during group projects, he offers an anecdote that pokes fun at his own finicky streak: When someone at a meeting asked to borrow his Pink Pearl eraser, he grew anxious. He knew if he said no, he would look selfish. So he handed it over, only to see the borrower ruin the nice, sharp edge that Chesney reserved for tiny errors. This drove Chesney nuts. “It’s no good for me anymore,” Chesney told the man. “You can have it.” Lesson? Don’t let your own hang-ups get in the way of a good working relationship.
“The Legend of the Pink Pearl,” as he calls it, is just one of many stories Chesney tells to enliven his 90-minute lectures in electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Michigan. A longtime proponent of storytelling in teaching, he uses the technique to clarify points, illustrate principles, and help students remember content. “They always ask for more,” Chesney says. He’s convinced that it helps students learn.
His colleague Erik Hildinger, a lecturer in the technical communication program of Michigan’s Engineering College, agrees. One thing that became clear to him during his years as a defense counsel, Hildinger says, was that jurors more easily retain information “if it’s couched in a story.” His own lectures always include at least one story, typically to help students remember a principle. And just as a lawyer tries to elicit sympathy from a jury, Hildinger chooses his own stories according to what will help him connect with students. “Does it work?” he asks. “I think it does. The stories also help establish a rapport. It helps win the students over, without my being a buddy.”
The practice meshes well with the way today’s students process information, Hildinger adds. Information often comes to them via time spent on a computer, rather than through texts, he notes. Attention spans are shorter than in previous generations; students’ minds wander easily. “They’re quite a bit like people in an oral culture,” Hildinger says, and so they can learn well through storytelling. “We get through to them by using some of the old techniques.”
The usefulness of storytelling as a pedagogical tool was solidified for Hildinger when he witnessed it in another professor’s classroom. This professor, noted both for both his brilliance and for his dull lecture style, spontaneously threw out a very funny story about a trip he had recently taken. “Everybody sat up and listened to the entire story,” says Hildinger. “It increased tremendously the level of interest in the classroom. That made a strong impression on me.”
Michigan senior Javona White Bear says she has benefited from the approach. One Chesney anecdote during a software engineering class drove home a lesson on group dynamics, she recalls. When the class broke up into teams to work on various aspects of a project, Chesney described what had happened during a similar exercise in the past: Members of one group yelled at one another the entire time, he recounted, but did highly productive work. Another group was overly polite, but the dynamic ultimately dissolved and little was accomplished. “The moral was, ‘Don’t be so polite that you can’t address the problem. There are deadlines to be met,’” she says.
The group project for White Bear’s class was to create software that maximized the efficiency of a school bus route. The students were asked to take into consideration such factors as safety and the need to have very young or special-needs children picked up in front of their houses so their parents could watch them board. Chesney emphasized the need for the software with another story. When his own daughter was in kindergarten, the bus stopped two blocks from their house, he told the students. The route, it turned out, had been designed manually. Chesney and his wife didn’t want to leave their 5-year-old by herself at a bus stop but couldn’t persuade the school district to change the route. This story, says White Bear, made the assignment seem less rote. “It made us feel like we were doing something useful. In my group, we’re thinking of offering our software to a school district. We can see there’s a need because we had a concerned parent in the classroom who expressed a need.”
A good time to be a raconteur is when you notice that students’ attention spans are starting to falter, Chesney says, or at the beginning of a lecture when the story serves as a transition from social time to work time. It’s also advantageous to prepare your students for the story by introducing it. Students often perk up when they hear the professor say, “I’d like to tell a short story….”
Teachers are not natural-born storytellers, Chesney says; it’s an acquired skill, and there are ways of honing it. The first step is to make sure you know the story. Write down key scenes or points and think of them as a storyboard that will guide you. Don’t dwell on irrelevant details, or the story may “die a lingering death,” he warns. And don’t let students’ pleas for more stories cause you to waste time. “I digress sometimes, but I also keep an eye on the clock. It’s usually just a two-minute story, not 15 minutes of me going off somewhere.”
While first-person stories can be interesting, an instructor should keep students’ needs uppermost in mind, Chesney advises. A story that begins with “I was so drunk once…” is obviously inappropriate, but so, too, are self-involved stories about events that have no relevance to young people, such as a 15-minute digression on the birth of one’s first child. On the other hand, students usually like the funny short story about the wacky relative or the offbeat professor because it gives them a break from academic rigors. Chesney, who spent many years in the auto industry, says stories from the workplace, when applicable, can illuminate a course. “If you teach by the example you actually lived, then it’s worth the time,” he says.
A historical account can be useful as well, provided it is accurate and relevant to the course. For example, during a data structures and algorithms class that contains material on cryptography, Chesney launches into a story about Queen Elizabeth I and her rival, Mary Queen of Scots: Elizabeth had sent Mary to prison and wanted to have her put to death but needed strong evidence that would neutralize Mary’s supporters. She found it by intercepting and decrypting secret messages revealing that Mary was actually plotting to have Elizabeth assassinated.
Finally, Chesney advises, teachers should watch students’ reactions and feel free to ask whether a particular story was effective. It takes feedback to become a good storyteller, he says. Don’t give up after one try.
Alice Daniel is a freelance writer and instructor in journalism at California State University, Fresno.