Using Stories to Engage Your Learners

Dr. Stephanie Knight

Male instructor holds tablet facing students

Today, I observed a classroom filled with twenty undergraduate college students. I could count on one hand the number of times they looked up at the instructor in a forty-five-minute time period. The instructor was gentle, kind and caring; he also was filled with content knowledge. Of course, this is vital when teaching children or adults. But according to Marzano and Pickering (2011) in their book, The Highly Engaged Classroom, not only do students want to feel safe and cared for, but they also want the material to be interesting. There are a plethora of ways we could go about accomplishing this objective. However, there is one surefire thing you can do in your classroom which will keep students not only interested but connected and engaged.

Tell Stories

Just recently, I was sitting in a congregation listening to a pastor give his weekly message. Within the first few minutes, I noticed that people had tuned him out. However, about ten minutes in, something amazing happened. All had looked up, locked eyes with him and were completely relating to him. Why? He started to tell a personal story that nicely illustrated the message he was relaying. It humanized what he was trying to share, and it also made him authentic, which allowed a relationship to be built. This relationship began because we engaged with an emotion. Stories stir our emotions, which allows the brain to be open to listening and therefore learning.

Why Stories Work

Marilee Sprenger, a consultant on neuroscience, agreed that for information to be stored (and remembered), it must be received through our senses (7 Brain-Based Ways to Make Learning Stick, 2018). That is why telling a story can get our students’ attention and keep them engaged; they are more apt to learn what you are trying to teach. Moreover, the way a story is told, the order of a narrative with an exposition, rising action, conflict and then some type of resolution, hooks us into the scene and therefore engages our brains.

When I introduce a lesson, I always try to find a story from my own life or from an experience to hook my audience. Also, when teaching the content, telling a true story from the life of someone you know, from a current event or even a fictional character, can reel in the student and hook them to learn the material. You can even start with, “Imagine you are in…” The brain will take in that sentence starter and be surrounded by the events of your imaginary scenario.

How can we tell if they are connecting with our story? For younger students, as in my daughter’s kindergarten class, they make a fist with their pinkie and thumb extended to show the connection. The teacher seeks to have students make this motion throughout the morning. She can tell they are listening and she can also tell the interest level. When you have their interest and you make them feel important with connections, you have their attention and they are engaged.

Including Stories in Your Classroom

  1. Break the ice by telling a story. Maybe you have a memory about something that relates to their stage of life. Give them a way to connect with you.
  2. Begin class with a funny story that happened to you or one that would relate to the lesson of the day. They are hooked now and ready to learn.
  3. An abstract concept can be explained with a story. Banister and Ryan (2001) talked about how children are more likely to remember science facts when taught in a story mode.
  4. Allow students to tell their own stories to each other. This builds relationships in the classroom creating a warm environment, again allowing for learning to take place.

If you noticed, I included a few short stories within this article to cement my point that telling stories throughout your lesson works. Try it in your classroom to engage your learners, create classroom connections and make learning occur.

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  • Banister, F. and Ryan, C. (2001) Developing science concepts through story-telling. School Science Review, 83(302), 75–83.
  • Marzano, R. J., Pickering, D. J., & Heflebower, T. (2011). The highly engaged classroom.  Bloomington, IN: Marzano Research Laboratory.
  • Sprenger, Marilee, (2018, April 22). 7 Brain-Based Ways to Make Learning Stick. Retrieved from

Dr. Stephanie Knight is an experienced 7th and 8th grade English language arts educator. She taught in Title One schools for eight years—helping them grow from underperforming to excelling—and then in an independent school for four years. Knight is now is part of Grand Canyon University’s adjunct faculty where she teaches graduate-level education and reading courses.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.