Communication Currents

Communication Current

A New Study Sheds Light on What Stories may be Most Relevant to Students

October 14, 2019
General Communication Studies, Higher Education, Instructional Communication, Interpersonal Communication

Instructors frequently use stories to explain or apply concepts in the classroom. On average, college instructors tell nine stories during a 50-minute class session. Although some scholars argue that stories can help students learn, others suggest that stories can be distracting. For example, students may get caught up in the details of stories and miss the connections to the lesson. Some scholars posit that story relevance is an important factor for student learning. In other words, stories should be relevant to students’ classroom needs, personal interests, and career goals in order to potentially increase learning in the classroom. 

...stories should be relevant to students’ classroom needs, personal interests, and career goals in order to potentially increase learning in the classroom.

In a new article published in the NCA journal Communication Education, Stephen M. Kromka, Alan K. Goodboy, and Jaime Banks examined what kinds of stories were most relevant to students’ learning. Kromka, Goodboy, and Banks wanted to find out what topics were relevant or irrelevant; how those stories were relevant or irrelevant to students’ learning needs, personal interests, and future goals; and whether the reasons that students gave for stories being relevant or irrelevant aligned with what topics students considered relevant or irrelevant. 

Using open-ended questions, the authors surveyed 388 undergraduate students about stories that instructors told while teaching. About half of the participants were asked questions about instructor stories that they found relevant. These students were asked to consider whether a story was perceived as “related to and important to the student’s classroom needs, personal interests, and future goals.” The other half of the participants were asked about instructor stories that they considered to be irrelevant. The authors conducted a qualitative content analysis on students’ answers, meaning that they analyzed the responses to identify common themes. 

Kromka, Goodboy, and Banks identified eight topic areas for relevant stories: college, interpersonal relationships, popular culture, health, workplace, sports and recreation, travel, and animals. Students found stories about persevering through college to be particularly relevant. For example, one student found it helpful when their instructor shared their own “difficult journey” in higher education and the pressure that they felt “to pick a different major like one in science or medicine.” 

Students also related to stories about interpersonal relationships, such as dating relationships, friendships, or roommates. Stories about popular culture, such as movies or current events, also helped students make connections between class materials and the “real world.” Health stories, such as dealing with injuries and illness, were also frequently reported to be relevant. Finally, students found relevance in stories about struggles in the workplace. Three additional relevant topics were less frequently reported: sports and recreation, travel, and animals. 

Kromka, Goodboy, and Banks identified nine irrelevant story topic areas: interpersonal relationships, popular culture, animals, college, sports and recreation, travel, health, workplace, and food. While all of relevant topics were the same as the irrelevant topics (with the exception of food that was found only in the irrelevant topics), the key difference was the nature of the stories. For example, while students found stories about dating relationships to be relevant, stories about married relationships or children were less relevant to them, because most were not married or did not have children. Likewise, while popular culture stories were identified as relevant, some popular culture topics, such as video games, were perceived as less relevant. One student wrote:

“One time, my business professor discussed a video game in class about how it related to a specific class topic…My professor thought that it was a common video game that was played a lot but me and a lot of my fellow peers in the class did not understand what the professor was trying to say.”

The instructor attempted to use the video game to explain a concept, but lack of familiarity with the game meant that it was irrelevant for many students. 

While college topped the list of relevant story topics, some stories about college were also deemed irrelevant by students, such as stories about recreational drug and alcohol use. Similarly, some sports, such as fishing, were perceived as less relevant. Animal stories about dogs and cats were perceived as irrelevant to course material. One student wrote, “My professor used to go on and on about how [their] dog would just pee all over [their] house, but that had nothing to do with Biology 101.” Students also reported that stories about travel outside of the country were perceived as “bragging,” so students felt that they were irrelevant. There were a few irrelevant topics that were less commonly reported: health, such as smoking; workplace stories, such as past low-paying jobs; and food, such as preferred sodas like Pepsi. 

Kromka, Goodboy, and Banks recommend that instructors “make an effort to connect with their students by sharing stories about their own past classroom difficulties experienced in college,” especially stories related to “students’ current difficulties.” One student described how their instructor had told a story about changing majors from biology to political science, which “related to my needs because I too felt like I was trapped in my path in college and [the instructor] made me realize that everything will end up working out and that I just need to follow my heart.” Kromka, Goodboy, and Banks suggest that instructors also consider sharing stories about past interpersonal relationships that might be perceived as more relevant to college students, such as stories about dating or roommates. 

In addition to focusing on relevant topics, Kromka, Goodboy, and Banks suggest that instructors “provide an explicit rationale as to why listening to this story will help the students better understand the current lesson topic.” This could help students understand why the story is relevant, which could improve understanding of the lesson concept. If instructors do not feel comfortable sharing personal stories, Kromka, Goodboy, and Banks propose that “brief instructor self-disclosures may be enough to connect to students on a more interpersonal level.”

Overall, results revealed that most students found an instructor narrative to be relevant when it discussed perseverance through personal struggles and decision-making in college because it related to the students’ own current difficulties. Many students perceived a narrative to be irrelevant when it mentioned a marital partner and/or children because students felt these stories had little to do with the course content. These results provide preliminary evidence for the types of stories instructors might share (or avoid) to ensure that students find classroom narratives pertinent to their lives.

This essay was translated by Mary Grace Hébert from the scholarly journal article: Stephen M. Kromka, Alan K. Goodboy & Jaime Banks (2019) Teaching with relevant (and irrelevant) storytelling in the college classroom, Communication Education, DOI: 10.1080/03634523.2019.1657156

About the author (s)

Stephen M. Kromka

West Virginia University

Ph.D. Candidate - Department of Communication Studies

Stephen M. Kromka

Dr. Alan K. Goodboy

West Virginia University

Professor - Department of Communication Studies

Alan K. Goodboy

Jaime Banks

Texas Tech University

Associate Professor - College of Media & Communication

Jaime Banks