The Power of Storytelling to Facilitate Human Connection and Learning
Jeanne M. Hughes, Justina Oliveira, and Crystal Bickford, Southern New Hampshire University
“What purpose does this class have in my life? How will this help me get a job? Why do we have to take this class?” These questions arise on the first day of many semesters from students in first-year general education classes. These are serious questions that should underlie any course plan. As educators, we know the benefits to student learning of these required classes, but we also know that student learning does not happen without their buy-in. Not only do our classes need to be relevant, but they should also be valued by students and offer them some practical connection to what they already know. We developed a learning community comprised of three first-year general education classes to help students connect their classes to each other and see their learning as relevant in their lives.
Learning communities, or cohorts of first-semester students enrolled in interdisciplinary classes that connect through a common theme, offer students unique opportunities to make connections through conversation, writing, and academic study. Our learning community was interdisciplinary in nature in that it included courses across three different disciplines. In these cases, a common theme is often helpful because it demonstrates how different fields can take a different lens for various topics, providing a multi-faceted approach to student learning that explains how they are connected. With this in mind, three professors from Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) formed an experience that we called, “Exploring Human Behavior and Motivation through Stories.”
The concept for our learning community grew from an initial discussion of discipline commonalities between Justina Oliveira, Associate Professor of Psychology, and Jeanne Hughes, Associate Professor of English. Through a comparison of course outcomes in Introduction to Psychology and College Composition I, we saw an opportunity to focus on human motivation through storytelling as a connecting theme that would help students access the learning objectives and think critically about others through their stories. We partnered with Crystal Bickford, Associate Professor of English, who taught the First-Year Seminar, a course that offers a critical lens on diversity, equity, and inclusion through the sharing of stories. Both College Composition I and First-Year Seminar are General Education requirements for all students, and it is the necessity of those courses that students often challenge. Introduction to Psychology, a general education elective, offered an opportunity to delve deeply into people’s stories and think about their motivation.
Storytelling is a way that people can relate to each other, and stories have long been used as a way to get people thinking about viewpoints beyond their own as well as to express our experiences to others. In Minds Made for Stories, Newkirk (2014) discussed how humans are naturally drawn to storytelling, which makes it a logical medium for making connections. The way we tell our stories is as important as the stories themselves (Newkirk, 2014), so as we planned this learning community, we thought specifically about different modalities of storytelling. The learning community included a variety of readings that represented alternative voices. Building on those stories, out-of-classroom experiences were emphasized, including service learning, a field trip to hear immigrants tell their stories, and a visit from a Vietnam veteran. Therefore, storytelling went beyond solely reading and writing within the three courses. Our goal for this learning community was for students to value their learning through their own journeys of moving beyond initial impressions and taking the time to understand other people more deeply by listening to their stories.
Effectiveness of Stories
Storytelling is certainly pervasive across history and culture, and many educators of a diversity of age groups utilize this technique to great effect. Historically, the use of storytelling was to pass along knowledge and values. For this reason, some current organizations utilize storytelling by encouraging long-time employees who are leaving the organization to pass on the important knowledge they acquired to newer employees (Wijetunge, 2012). The prevalence of productions around storytelling such as Suitcase Stories (https://iine.org/suitcase-stories), which empowers immigrants to share their stories on stage, and the existence of associations of storytellers such as the National Association of Black Storytellers, Inc., are both evidence that though the avenues of storytelling may change, people are resolute in its power. Storytelling is often embedded within courses as well; at times, it is used in a purposeful and consistent manner, but often in piecemeal fashion. According to Woodhouse (2011), the purpose for “storytelling is to ‘humanize’ the process of learning by appealing to the students’ imagination” (p. 212). The objective for our learning community was to demonstrate the power of storytelling in university-level courses and promote the goal of including more storytelling in our classrooms.
Student engagement as an outcome is the focus of much pedagogical research at the university level. Kahn (1990) explained work engagement to be driven by three factors: meaningfulness, safety, and availability of resources. Storytelling aims at creating all three of these factors within the classroom environment such that is activates meaning in course content for students, promotes a sense of community which aligns to a safe environment for sharing and taking risks, and allows students to want to invest their available resources of cognitive effort and attention towards the content at hand. Tews, Jackson, Ramsay, and Michel (2014) conceptualized “fun” in the classroom by the categories of fun activities and fun delivery. The latter is instructor-focused and includes storytelling, creative examples, and humor. Their study with an undergraduate sample found that fun delivery significantly positively impacted student engagement. In a change management course, Jabri and Pounder (2001) found that narratives or storytelling on the topic of change and management development provided students with a deep understanding of the real impacts of change on employees because such story-based learning creates multi-faceted and more critical analyses of these concepts and theories through the awareness of both the self and others’ perspectives.
Crafting a strategic use of stories in a course, however, can be as tricky as crafting the story itself. According to Brittenham, McLaughlin, and Mick (2017), “students can find themselves performing a high-wire act of engagement and resistance as they explore and invent the meanings of stories while responding to the conventions and expectations of an assignment” (p. 112). In this manner, management professors may want to partner with English and literature professors to understand their careful development of building stories into courses. For instance, Newkirk (2014) contended that narrative is a preferred way of learning because students want explanations and patterns. Students make sense of the world and those around them through stories (Christiansen, 2016; Newkirk, 2014). It is through the sharing of personal stories that many learning benefits can be derived. Storytelling requires active listening. The more actively a student listens, the deeper the bond created (Gargiulo, 2005). Students can use stories as a way not only to connect with information, but also to recall it later. When a person tells a story, the audience can hear the personal interest and energy in the topic (Newkirk, 2012). Stories elicit student attention, giving them something to remember, reconsider, and reconnect with long after the story is shared.
Not only do stories help students learn, but they also help students connect with others. Gargiulo (2005) stated, “The quickest path between yourself and another person is a story” (p. 21). Stories allow students to share experiences and consider other perspectives. Connections can be made through associations (Gargiulo, 2005). Understanding can be cultivated even when there is disagreement. “Listening to stories encourages us to reflect on our similarities, appreciate other perspectives, and negotiate our differences” (Gargiulo, 2005, p. 26). Incorporating this preferred way of learning facilitates access to concepts, deep learning of ideas, and connecting with and understanding of others. This seemed to us the ideal foundation for our interdisciplinary learning community. We anticipated being able to assess effectiveness of our courses through observation, but we also chose to collect both quantitative and qualitative research during both semesters of the learning community to see what else we might discover. We measured our students’ cross-cultural competence levels at the beginning of the semester and at the end of the semester, and we also collected students’ written feedback to determine if there were significant changes in this important skill.
Our Learning Community
Our learning community consisted of three first-year, first-semester courses: College Composition I, Introduction to Psychology, and First-Year Seminar. When planning this community based on storytelling, we focused not only on our individual classes, but also on the related experiences we could provide for students during the semester. Our plan included explicit connection between materials and learning outcomes in our courses, service-learning opportunities, guest speakers, and a field trip. The original idea was to run this learning community for one semester, but after seeing positive trends in the first semester, we continued it the following year and have plans to keep going.
To begin our learning community, we met to discuss each of our classes. Our university has a university-wide fixed curriculum for First-Year Seminar, so the three of us reviewed the readings and the planned lessons for the semester. Readings focused on white privilege, color blindness, sexism, transsexuality, and class structure. We discussed how the readings connected to our course theme of discovering human motivation through storytelling, and we considered how additional readings could affect student experience. We each read the books that would be taught in our learning community, so we would have insight to discuss points made by students in any of the classes. To get students thinking about human motivation with an interdisciplinary focus in relation to storytelling, we chose books that allowed us to make connections across and between the disciplines of psychology and English.
In Introduction to Psychology, students read Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning, in which he discussed both his horrific experiences as a prisoner in multiple WWII concentration camps and explained the genesis of his beautifully articulated creation of a new therapy style based on existentialism and finding meaning in one’s life. Students spent two different class days engaging in a book discussion about their reactions and take-aways from this book, which resulted in many powerful conversations between students. In College Composition I, students read The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore and The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater. The Moore book prompted discussion about opportunities, lack of opportunities, and life choices. By following the stories of both men with the same name, students could see the lasting effects of decisions and ponder where different choices could have been made. The Slater book offered insight into gender and sexual identities, and the story also inspired questions about the juvenile-justice system. In this book, a young African American teen chooses to follow his friends and light another teen’s skirt on fire because the teen in the skirt looked male, and the other teens reacted poorly to viewing someone who confused them. By following this story, the students were able to learn about not only the resilience and forgiveness exhibited by the victim of the fire, but also the disparate treatment of young, lower socio-economic level teens in the justice system. All of these non-fiction books gave students time to reflect on others’ lives and why they make the choices they do.
Community building was an essential part of this learning community. We had to build community inside each class and across our learning community. In College Composition I, students began the semester by writing and sharing their own stories. This was an important place to start because it gave us a chance to work on community building and respecting others’ perspectives. In First-Year Seminar, students were asked to write personal journals, often answering prompts that connected their lives to the readings and videos discussed in class. It gave students the chance to think through ideas before sharing thoughts in class. While in Introduction to Psychology, students had growing numbers of opportunities to share pieces of their stories. The early storytelling components were low-stakes such as goal-setting activities (both short and long-term) and sharing what they were comfortable discussing regarding their own learning tendencies and views on various intelligence theories.
These community-building activities in each class blossomed into community building for the learning community through service-learning. Classroom learning provided a foundation for thinking, discussing, and reflecting about others’ stories. Alongside that, students participated in service-learning activities and took a field trip to listen to immigrants telling their stories, towards the goal of perspective taking and to build cross-cultural awareness and competence. Service-learning opportunities must be coordinated with class objectives (Bringle & Hatcher, 1999), so the choices we made were deliberate based on the goal of our learning community. These activities gave students different ways to consider the stories of diverse others and again, were included in order to allow for growth in cross-cultural competence. Our first service-learning activity was done as a group. All of the students in the learning community and the three teachers met to work together making blankets for children living in poverty. It began with a discussion of what poverty is, so students could learn what poverty percentages actually represent. The poverty conversation was brought close to home when students learned the percentages of poverty in the city of our campus; the amount of poverty was surprising to many. The blanket-making activity gave some students the opportunity to be the experts as they showed other students and their teachers how to make the blankets. That activity filled with collaboration and lots of laughter helped to forge a community working together to learn.
Service-learning opened up this community to what was beyond our classrooms. Students were not only learning about the experiences of others, they also learned they could work to affect those experiences. Some students, inspired by the poverty discussion, went on to assist the local food bank in a food drive. There were several other service opportunities students could choose during the semester including partnering with the local police to provide a safe trick-or-treat event for local children, working with the Special Olympics Young Athletes program (https://www.sonh.org/about-sonh/), creating birthday boxes for children in foster care, and celebrating birthdays in local nursing homes. Each opportunity allowed students to interact with others different than they are and learn more about their stories while connecting those experiences with the content they were learning in the learning community courses.
The collaboration between classes continued with a field trip to see Suitcase Stories, a presentation of stories written and told by immigrants. Before leaving on the field trip, students were introduced to Suitcase Stories in Introduction to Psychology. Planning for the field trip crossed all three classes as we discussed it ahead of time and got all field-trip permission slips completed in time for our adventure. Suitcase Stories includes approximately five people telling their powerful stories. We heard about people fighting to go to school, rushing through war-stricken streets to find safety, spousal abuse, harrowing journeys to escape countries under siege, and long hours of work at low-paying jobs to get ahead. Speakers were open, honest, and genuine as they shared their stories. The students were left to think about the experiences of the speakers and how this impacted them. When students returned to class, they wrote in College Composition I about their reflections, which were shared with all teachers. One student explained his reactions to this experience:
This learning community helped my ability to listen and learn about other people’s stories. I really enjoyed the trip to the Suitcase Stories, because it gave me a different perspective onto life. These people had such awful struggles, but they were able to move past them and talk about them in front of live audiences.
Additionally, we hosted a guest speaker in the College Composition I class with all learning community teachers invited to be part of the class. A Vietnam veteran came to tell his stories to the students. To keep our focus on sharing stories, we began with all students writing a “Where I’m From” poem where they could share part of their personal stories before our guest shared his very emotional ones. After they shared their stories with our visitor, he shared his own. Students reacted positively to his visit. One student described it in the following way:
I would like to say thank you for coming in and being open with us about your experiences. There are stories people tell that give one an idea of war, but really it does not go beyond that. Your story was not only beautifully written and powerful, but brought us as listeners to your side in those days to watch on as bystanders experiencing both the beauty of the Vietnamese countryside and the devastation of gunfire, landmines, and the tragedies of war.
This one event showed the power of sharing stories and allowed students to connect deeply with a stranger after that person was willing to be transparent about his own traumatic experiences.
Students could see the connection between the classes and began discussing all three classes together. They made comparisons among the readings, which were meant to represent different cultures and beliefs, some of which directly related to the students in the class. One student mentioned that the Slater book was the first book that contained a character like she is, which is a powerful statement that shows the importance of diverse characters in literature read in classrooms. Students commented on the power of choices after reading the Wes Moore book, which also caused them to make connections to the hardships described in the Frankl book. When they read about a teen making a bad choice to harm another in The 57 Bus, they could relate it to deliberate actions, bystander behavior, and unconscious bias they learned about in First-Year Seminar. What they were learning in Introduction to Psychology—topics ranging from motivation, mental health struggles, learning and intelligence theories, all the way to developmental psychology in children and the power of the situation in regards to social psychology—allowed students an initial lens of hearing others’ stories in a psychological context.
Having the opportunity to participate in multiple classes working toward the same goal allowed students to flourish. In College Composition I, students went from writing their own stories to writing the stories of others. They could interview someone in the community or research a person of interest, but their focus had to be on telling that person’s story. The switch from their perspective to someone else’s perspective complemented our focus on understanding other people’s stories and lived experiences. An important part of the composition class that extended across the learning community was the frequent opportunity for reflection. Students were asked throughout the semester to take time to think about what was happening in class; how they were affected by the stories; their thoughts about visitors, service learning, and our field trip; and if they felt knowing a person’s story changed the way they saw that person. Making reflection a priority gave students practice in making connections and allowed them to think about all the learning community activities and the idea of storytelling.
A bit after mid-term, First-Year Seminar journals were returned in preparation towards constructing digital stories, where students were asked to review their thoughts and create personal videos that combined still photography, video, music, and personal narration that explained who they were. These digital stories, shared at the conclusion of the term, were powerful testaments to how they saw themselves within a broader context. Some of them focused on only one aspect of their lives (e.g., their sexuality, socio-economic status, citizenship, etc.) while others told their life stories (e.g., growing up in another country, the journey to becoming a first-generation college student, surviving abuse, etc.). It was challenging for students to have their personal stories so public; however, most trusted in the compassion of their instructor and classmates. These compelling digital stories represent the power of the learning community. Had the stories been required in isolation of this single class, they likely would not have been as honest and vulnerable. Having support from multiple faculty members, being asked to grapple with personal topics across all three courses, and learning to trust their peers emphasized the level they were willing to share.
During the third month of the semester, students crafted a uniquely formatted research paper in Introduction to Psychology where they were asked to combine a brief literature review they conducted on existing research about a psychological topic they wanted to learn more about and their own personal experiences (or their family’s) related to that topic. Only the professor read these papers. By the end of the semester, most students chose to select a psychological disorder that had personally impacted them in that they had been diagnosed with it or a loved one had. This was impressive to see, and it occurred during both semesters we taught this learning community. Their comfort level in choosing to share this verbally in front of a class of more than twenty peers is a testament to the community we built over the semester, based not only on the power and value of storytelling but the ability to listen and respect one another’s differences while seeming to increase their empathy and understanding of others. Participation in a learning community and consistently working with the same students in multiple classes each week helped students build trust in each other, which led to very open discussions and questions from their peers after each presentation. After learning so many stories from different perspectives in all three classes, students were supportive and interested in others’ stories and seemed to value each individual’s experiences, which was our goal for this learning community.
Students relied on the comfort of the community to build their own strengths in each of the classes. They came to class, had lively discussions, and freely discussed ideas from all three of the classes in any single class. This was positive evidence of the effectiveness of this interdisciplinary learning community, but we did not stop with our observations. We also looked at the data we collected to see what we could find. We began first with the quantitative data we collected, and then we looked at the qualitative data.
Sample and Procedure
We collected data on cross-cultural competence scores both in the beginning and the end of the semester for both sections of the learning community (fall of 2018 and 2019). Participation was voluntary. Students selected a randomly generated ID number to connect their Time 1 (beginning of the semester) and Time 2 (end of the semester) data to ensure anonymity while being able to measure their change in scores across the semester. This study had IRB approval from our university, and the survey was conducted online through Qualtrics. A total of 47 students completed the Time 1 survey and 13 students also completed the survey at Time 2. This is a small number, but it is certainly a starting point towards understanding how an interdisciplinary learning community based on storytelling themes may impact students’ experiences in the courses.
Cross-cultural competence: All participants completed a cross-cultural competence measure consisting of eight items on a 7-point Likert-type scale anchored with 1 = strongly disagree to 7 = strongly agree, which includes questions about students’ cultural awareness, sensitivity, and effectiveness in building relationships with those from different cultures. These items have been adapted from Sucher and Cheung’s (2015) scale.
Demographic items: Demographic questions about the participants’ prior volunteering experience (e.g., have they done service-learning before) and biological sex were included in the study to determine if these predicted cross-cultural competence levels (though they did not). No other demographic questions were included to protect the anonymity of the participants. This was important because they were students within our courses, and we did not want any risk of identification.
Remember, it was our intention to create an experience that students would find relevant. We were also interested to discover the effect of so many discussions of human motivation and what was learned from stories. We learned through student reflections that this community provided skills development related to cross-cultural competence as indicated by our quantitative findings explained below. Furthermore, this storytelling-themed learning community seemed to be connected to students’ perceptions that they valued their learning experiences in these courses and that they offered them an opportunity to reflect on what they learned through others’ stories, as demonstrated by our qualitative data (discussed later).
Of the initial 47 students who responded to the Time 1 survey, about 28% answered that they had done service learning as part of another course before, including any in high school, while 72% said they had not. Thirty percent of these students self-identified as male and 70% as female. Results of a paired samples t-test indicated students had significantly higher levels of cross-cultural competence at the end of the semester (M = 6.03, SD = .71) compared to the beginning (M = 5.48, SD = .65) overall, as expected, t(13) = -2.83, p < .05, 95% CI [-.97, -.13], d = .81. Cross-cultural competence was measured on a 7-point Likert scale with higher numbers indicating more competence. Though this is a very small sample size, the effect is quite large (d = .81), suggesting students did gain cross-cultural competence throughout the semester. Of course, we do not know for sure if this is due to our efforts in the learning community or due to other experiences these students had in their first semester of college. However, the goal is for development in cross-cultural competence to lead to higher levels of empathy and understanding within students, and eventually, to increase their civic engagement within their communities in the future.
Through the frequent reflections written by students, we were able to collect information and see some patterns in their responses. Students wrote about the relevance of the courses to their learning and lives. They reveal empathy and understanding of others after learning about their diverse stories and experiences. They also discussed how the interdisciplinary
learning community offered them a comfortable learning environment that helped them transition into undergraduate studies. The representative quotes below from the individual reflections written by members of the learning community reveal their ideas about each of these concepts:
Relevance to students
“I believe learning through storytelling helped my reading and writing skills. Learning things about stories in this course helped me to relate stories to real life. Knowing how to analyze a story can help with reading and writing skills. Learning how to do that in this class and my other two classes I believe it helped me to better understand a lot of things about society and myself.”
“Through the majority of these stories I was able to hear different voices, and different writing styles depending on the author. The learning community was able to create a similar theme throughout the classes and this made learning much more interesting. The ideas that were shared in kept (sic) in another class could then be used to express different ideas or arguments in another class.”
“The community being about storytelling was exactly what I needed for my career as an author. Through Psychology, I learned how my characters may act or react and why they do so. I also learned about different disorders and characteristics a person may have and the background the character must have in order to make sense of who they are now.”
Empathy, Understanding, Action
“In the learning community it definitely affected my thinking the most I would say, as I would always think before acting in a situation with my community. I did not want to make any trouble intentionally or unintentionally. This helped me be more aware of certain situations and made me think ahead, and I believe this to have helped me for the future, and it was an overall good experience to have.”
“The service learning projects…helped me to understand there are many stories that end up or start differently, maybe worse, than others. This helped me want to give back to the community.”
“The learning community also gave me more insight to the outside world by bringing in real examples of everyday struggles. It was really neat to hear other people’s stories because no one has the same story. I learned a lot about other people and what they go through a day-to-day basis.”
“The biggest effect this had on me was its ability to affect my thinking. Hearing stories from different people and getting perspectives outside of my own allowed for my [sic] to feel and understand the reasons of others.”
“My favorable memory was attending Suitcase Stories and especially listening to the story of a woman immigrating to the United States from her homeland and working hard in order to be in top position at her workplace as it reminded me a lot of my mother. The learning community has affected the way I read and write by discovering ways to speak about other’s life perspectives. The learning community has changed my way of thinking by realizing that many successful individuals
wouldnt [sic] be where they are today if it werent [sic] for the struggles they had gone through and the dedication it took to overcome it in order to succeed in life.”
Comfort with interdisciplinary, collaborative learning environment
“I feel more comfortable in classes with my learning community than in a class where I barely know anyone. This has affected my participation. As I am more comfortable in my learning community classes, I feel more comfortable participating. I have been able to reach out to others in my learning community with any questions I have for an assignment.”
“When participating in the learning community and learning others’ stories, I genuinely feel as though it was much easier to participate in this community. This is because we all knew each other, and it was much easier to have conversation where we could all contribute without feeling judged or uncomfortable. Usually, we share our work with the class so I feel that I can read, write, and say how I feel because of how comfortable we are. I believe a majority of us learn better because of the comfort and friends we have made as well and that it makes us more willing to learn and listen. Versus, in other classes I do not feel this at all. It is more difficult to have conversation and makes participating much more difficult because I feel more judged and on edge with students I do not know as well. The learning community is a good idea because it gives students the chance to make better friends [,] which will have a positive impact on the class as a whole.”
We used stories as the connection to bring three different courses and forty-seven students over two years together with an interdisciplinary focus to encourage students to think differently about how they see their classes, learning, others, and themselves.
Interdisciplinary learning communities are high-impact practices that help to connect students to their school community. Our goal when creating this learning community was to create courses students valued for their own learning and lives, to give students a sense of belonging on campus, and most importantly, to move beyond the school community to help students learn about others by listening to their stories. Going beyond the surface and really understanding the multi-faceted nature of people as well as how they develop and act changed the way the students looked at others and viewed social issues. Participation in learning communities has a positive effect on cross-cultural competence (Soria & Johnson, 2017), and our students illustrated this in multiple ways. They connected with storytellers both in and out of the classroom, viewed stories they read with a new lens of wanting to learn about others’ experiences, and acted on their interdisciplinary learning about others by participating in service projects in the community.
At the end of this learning community, students discussed their connection to our university community as well as to environments to which they were exposed through the readings, activities, field trips, and service learning. Stories played an integral role in their learning, sharing, and reflecting, which helped them connect to others. The students valued their learning, and they value people and their stories, as one of those students explains:
”I like the theme of learning human motivation through storytelling of the learning community. I still remember a quote from TED Talk video we watched in English class: stories matter. Everyone has different stories and that is what makes everybody unique. Understanding people starts at understanding their stories.”—Student
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