Storytelling is a great way to teach content

Active learning. Student-inquiry. Flipped.

“Content coverage” is taking a back seat to more active, student-centered activities. We hear, “Less is More.” “Content doesn’t equal learning.”  And yet, at the same time, in most fields of college study, there’s a certain amount of content that is essential to be able to understand the fundamental concepts and to speak/write in the “language” of that field. Sometimes there’s quite a lot of content. How much content is enough? What is the best way to teach “content” and concepts?

Lecturing is an efficient means to present content. Concepts, facts, relationships, vocabulary. But, lectures serve other purposes as well. A lecture doesn’t have to be a one-way street. Lectures can inspire students to want to know more about a subject. It’s your opportunity to organize the information in a way that tells a story, that links material. Lectures also give students a conceptual framework for the content that helps them be able to then work with it in meaningful ways. Lecture classes can stimulate discussion, questioning and participation. (And you don’t need clickers to do it!)

I’ve seen articles that lead with phrases like, “lecturing is dead.” Articles that imply that faculty who “still” lecture are out of touch with their students, or that they aren’t delivering a high quality teaching experience for their classes. I disagree. Sure, some lectures (and lecturers) just drone on in the front of the room and some students find it hard to pay attention, let alone learn while sitting there. And, it is true that it’s more difficult to engage students in a big lecture hall. However, some lectures are exciting, organized, clear and engaging. Students actively take notes, ask questions, and leave feeling like they have learned something new. Being there, rather than watching the lecture as a “flipped” experience in their rooms before class, provides a more memorable learning experience.

I think the secret ingredient to an effective lecture experience, is a healthy dose of storytelling.

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People love stories. Stories with a message are the best kind. For thousands of years before the invention of the book or You-tube video, people taught and learned about the world through storytelling. Sure, it’s great to learn by doing and that’s also an important avenue for teaching. But, sometimes a good story teaches concepts and content more effectively than group activities. A wonderful advantage of a good story is that you can return to it again and again to remind students about the concept conveyed in the story. Story-based lectures can be memorable. I still remember some incredible lectures I attended when I was in school.

Here are five elements of storytelling that I’ve adapted for teaching introductory biology:

  1. Character
  2. Setting
  3. Plot
  4. Conflict
  5. Resolution/moral

Here’s an example story I told the first day of class. See if you can find the elements of storytelling. The story is available at

In the 1990’s, the night air on the island of Kauai was missing something. The sound of crickets chirping. A team of scientists from the University of Hawaii was dispatched to investigate a drastic decline in the cricket population. Imagine their relief in 2003 when they found a healthy, although silent, population of crickets (they had feared extinction). Now, here’s the mystery. The male crickets advertise their reproductive potential by chirping a mating call. Females are attracted to the male calls. These males were overwhelmingly silent, though. A closer examination revealed that these males lacked the stiff bristles needed to rub together to make the classic cricket call. In fact, the males’ resembled the females’ bristle-less wings. The scientists further discovered that one of the genes involved in the development of the bristle exhibited the same expression pattern as the females, so the bristles don’t develop. But, how did this situation arise?

It turns out that sometime in the 1980’s a parasitic wasp hitched a ride to Kauai. This wasp, attracted by the male cricket call, lays her eggs on the back of the cricket. When the eggs hatch, the larvae eat the cricket. The rare mutant crickets with no bristles, unable to compete for females, now found they had mating possibilities. They survived to reproduce, passing along the developmental gene mutation in the process. Within about 20 cricket-generations, the silent males dominated the island’s cricket population.

what happens to normal and mutant crickets when flies are present and when flies are absent

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This story demonstrates several concepts: sexual selection, natural selection, changes in developmental genes, genetic variation, micro-evolutionary change, how quickly change can occur, and more. Students are curious and want to know more. Why did the females change their mating preferences? Was that genetic too? How did the silent males attract the females? What happened to the parasitic wasp when the supply of chirping males was exhausted?

Use storytelling to convey content and difficult concepts. When mixed with other types of activities, lectures with stories are an essential means to engage your students actively.

Here’s a link to one of the first articles about the crickets: Zuk, M., Rotenberry, J. T., and Tinghitella, R. M. (2006). Silent night: adaptive disappearance of a sexual signal in a parasitized population of field crickets. Biology Letters 2(4):521-524.