Book Introduction

Stories and storytelling have been part of human existence for centuries. Stories have been the means of keeping histories and preserving cultural practices and legacies. Additionally, teachers have used stories to help learners remember important information and relate more personally to concepts being taught. Narrative learning theory contends that, not only are stories an important teaching tool, stories and the narrative process are in fact integral to learning. Narrative theory explores how learners make meaning through constructing personal narratives to structure information and experiences.

Learners are often more easily engaged through story, and they remember better those things that are presented in a narrative context. For example, Eide and Eide (2012) found that individuals with dyslexia often struggle with memorizing, particularly math facts or processes. One way these individuals compensate is by placing these facts and processes within stories that tell the tales of how the numbers interact with one other and their world. Facts presented in a list are much more difficult to remember than facts that are embedded as part of a story arc. This is because stories allow learners to make emotional connections with the content which can make it more personally meaningful and memorable.

However, stories are more than just an effective attention-getting device or memory-enhancing tool. In Chapter 1, Hokanson and Fraher (2008) contended that the story structure is so innate to our human existence that it is an important part of cognition processes. “When this [story] structure is not present, learners must spend more time and mental bandwidth understanding the structure and less understanding the learning content” (p. 29). Plowman (1996) said, “The role of narrative is not therefore simply aesthetic, it is central to our cognition from earliest childhood” (p. 93). A key component of cognition is connecting to new information. The way in which we inherently know to make sense of the world around us is through crafting personal narratives. Edwin 0. Wilson (2002) said, “We all live by narrative, every day and every minute of our lives. Narrative is the human way of working through a chaotic and unforgiving world” (p. 10).

Clark (2010), described how learners construct personal narratives within social contexts. She pointed out that there is always an audience, perceived or real, even if that audience is only the self—we tell ourselves stories all the time—and these audiences influence the purpose and form of the narrative. Mellon’s students (1999, Chapter 4 of this book) recognized the role they each played as both storytellers and audience in an online digital storytelling course.

Narration provides opportunities for powerful personal expression as part of the learning process. These expressions serve to strengthen the cognitive connections mentioned above. Clark (2010) talked about the prelinguistic nature of experience. Personal reflection allows learners to access and make sense of the experience. In chapter 5 of this book, McLellan stated, “The goal is to reflect and report upon learning experiences, in this way deepening the learning through integrating tacit and explicit knowledge.” Mellon (1999) also recognized the power of these expressions to help students understand themselves and their relationships to others and the past. Helping learners develop the ability to reflect on and express their personal experiences allows them to more easily connect with others and with their own experiences.

Based on the potential power of narrative in teaching and learning, several authors in this book asserted that narrative should be a well-used resource in instructional design. Technology is opening doors for new approaches to education that allow for unprecedented connectedness and interaction with instructors, fellow learners and ideas. Hokanson and Fraher (2008, Chapter 1) claimed that narrative provides, “A structure for the interaction between the new technologies of contemporary education and the culturally ancient systems of the brain,” and Mclellan (2002, Chapter 5) pointed out the power of technology to immerse a learner in a story environment. In this way a story can go beyond a passive reading or listening exercise to a story-experience, often allowing for the learner to determine the direction of the narrative, and participate fully in it.

A related idea, and one that could inform a narrative approach to instructional design is that learning something new is a story process in and of itself, with beginnings, challenging obstacles during the process, and the triumphant conclusion. With this idea in mind, courses could be explicitly designed to echo the hero myth (Chapter 1) with the learner as the hero and educational professionals as the guides or mentors for the hero.

Book Organization

We have established that storytelling as a means for learning has existed for centuries—some scholars even going as far as to say it is an essential component to humanity. However, the age-old mediums for narrative and narrative learning are rapidly evolving with emerging media and technologies. The compiled articles in this book center on narrative learning as it is seen today in classrooms.

The first section, Narrative Theory and Principles, presents some of the basic theory and principles for narrative application. In their chapter titled “Narrative Structure, Myth, and Cognition for Instructional Design,” Hokanson and Fraher (2008), encapsulate narrative theory, recognizing that “narrative is a scheme by means of which human beings give meaning to their experience of temporality and personal actions.” This view of narrative as a “schematic structure of understanding” is a launching point for the entire book, providing a necessary understanding of narrative theory.

The following article, “Learner Stories and the Design of Authentic Instruction,” discusses a set of principles instructors can follow to create authentic learning through authentic stories. The article emphasizes effective story arc and varying plot events as a way to create these types of authentic stories—stories in which students can respond to “new, ‘real-world,’ experiences using perspectives, information, and skills that the learner pre­viously encountered vicariously through our learning experiences” (Goldsworthy & Honebein, 2010, p. 31). In essence, the second chapter is a detailed, resourceful article for both viewing narrative as learning from a more practical position and understanding the principles behind applying narrative learning in design.

“Digital Storytelling as an Interactive Digital Media” (Anderson & Chua, 2010), though still in the Narrative Theory and Principles section, is the article that launches the rest of the articles into the digital age—but not before first describing the principles behind digital storytelling. Specifically, the articles emphasize the necessity of context in storytelling, especially within the framework for digital storytelling, as students create digital storytelling which extends beyond the classroom.

The rest of the book looks at narrative learning in practice, specifically in the age of digital technologies. These articles are arranged chronologically and reflect the technological developments over the past couple of decades. The first and oldest article of this section tells the story of one teacher trying digital storytelling after being wary of its supposed benefits. The teacher discovers digital storytelling’s unique effect on students and recognizes the role of the new approach to narrative learning.

The second article of this section focuses on experience design, specifically the experience of storytelling through the media of drama. Though the article does mention that experience design is an ancient practice, it emphasizes the pervasiveness of experience design “with media, including radio, television, and interactive electronic media, playing a central role” (McLellan, 2002, p. 30).

“Digital Storytelling: Expanding Media Possibilities for Learning” (McLellan, 2008) offers a variety of case studies for the new digital framework of studies, examples ranging from students reporting on dog-sled races to employing blog-writing in classrooms. In this article, the wide variety of possible applications  of digital storytelling and narrative approaches to learning begin to emerge.

The last three articles continue with this form, demonstrating case studies for narrative learning in a digital age. “Language Learning in Multi-User Virtual Environments: Using the Enter-the-Story Teaching Method” (Wong & Tan, 2009) follows students as they enter virtual worlds to practice the Chinese language within an immersive context. This model also employs a motivational component—building a virtual civilization, etc.—to further encourage students to learn the language. Romero (2016), in the following article, presents an example of storytelling in an online nursing class where students are presented with a situation (essentially, a story plot) in which they must respond; in a language online course, students enter a scenario as reporters who must research a specific location in order to piece together a news story. The last article points to storytelling as one means to help children, “Playfully develop their own approaches to science” (Clegg, Ahn, Yip, Bonsignore, & Pauw, 2016, p. 23). For example, the article explains storytelling as “a natural scaffold and guide for supporting learners’ inquiry practices” (p. 25), prompting children to reflect on their scientific experiences.

Narrative learning as a practice, as seen in the later articles, is an ever-shifting phenomenon. Though the age-old theories of myth and cognition still apply, digital storytelling comes with its own set of principles and rules for effective narrative learning. The first section offers a basis in the principles and theory of narrative learning, but then offers concrete models for instructional designers to learn from and employ in their own learning contexts.

Article Selection

For this book, we sought articles related to the broad concept of narrative in instructional design and educational practice. We began by searching within the ERIC (Education Information Resource Center) database for all articles published in Educational Technology, searching by its ISSN. We then searched within this corpus for any article with the words narrative, story, storytelling, or reflection in the abstract or title. After reading through the abstracts, we located the complete articles that seemed to best fit the topic of narrative in design and selected from this group those that are included in this book.

Narrative techniques can have broad application in instructional design, and some designs only use these techniques minimally. Additionally, narrative techniques may be used without ever being explicitly identified as such. We chose to include a wide variety of examples in these chapters to hopefully illustrate the wide array of applications, and different ways to think about narrative approach to design.

Citing this book

The following is the recommended APA citation for this book:

Grimaud, J., Harding, T., & West, R. E. (2018). Narrative in instructional design. Available at


Anderson, K., T., Chua, P. H. (2010). Digital storytelling as an interactive digital media context. Educational Technology, 50(5), 32-36.

Clark, M. C. (2010). Narrative learning: Its contours and its possibilities. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 126. 3-11.

Clegg, T., Ahn, J.,; Yip, J. C., Bonsignore, E., Pauw, D. (2016). Scientizing with “ScienceKit”: Social media and storytelling mobile apps for developing playful scientist dispositions. Educational Technology, 56(3), 23-28.

Eide B., Eide F. (2012). The dyslexic advantage: Unlocking the hidden potential of the dyslexic brain. New York: Hudson Street Press.

Goldsworthy, R., Honebein, P. C. (2010). Learner stories and the design of authentic instruction. Educational Technology, 50(4), 27-33.

Hokanson, B., Fraher, R. (2008). Narrative structure, myth, and cognition for instructional design. Educational Technology, 48(1), 27-31.

McLellan, H., (2008), Digital storytelling: Expanding media possibilities for learning. Educational Technology, 48(5), 18-21.

McLellan, H. (2002). Staging experiences: A proposed framework for designing learning experiences. Educational Technology, 42(6), 30-37.

Mellon, C. (1999) Digital storytelling: Effective learning through the internet. Educational Technology, 39(2), 46-50.

Plowman, L. (1996). Narrative, linearity, and interactivity: Making sense of interactive multimedia. British Journal of Educational Technology, 27(2), 92-105.

Romero, L. (2016). A story approach to create online college courses. Educational Technology, 56(1), 36-40.

Wilson, E. 0. (2002, Spring). The power of story. American Educator, 26(1), 8-11.

Wong, Y., Tan, S. (2009). Language learning in multi-user virtual environments: Using the Enter-the-Story teaching method. Educational Technology, 49(5), 32-34.


Narrative in Instructional Design Copyright © 2018 by Educational Technology Publications. All Rights Reserved.

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