5 ways to use stories to make your online course more engaging


The ongoing challenge of teaching online is keeping students engaged: providing an experience that’s meaningful and not just transactional—not just a set of content units and assessments.

Stories can be a powerful tool for teaching and learning, with possibilities for enhancing memory, motivation, a sense of relevance, and coherent construction of knowledge. (See OSU’s Digital Storytelling initiative or books like The Storytelling Animal or Storytelling as Instructional Method.)

The following are some of the ways we’ve seen instructors use stories and storytelling to make their online courses more meaningful and engaging.

1. Share your personal, professional, and scholarly experiences

Your presence as an instructor is one of the most important parts of your students’ course experience (and probably why they’re coming to Ohio State). Students want to hear you tell your own stories–through video, audio, discussion messages, or web text. They can relate their experiences and motivations to yours and start to understand how an expert approaches the subject matter. They’ll also be more willing to share their own stories and metacognitive development. (See Why instructor’s presence matter’s so much online.)

2. Incorporate digital stories–interviews, stories, or testimonials–from outside people

In an online course you have the ability to bring in “guest lecturers” with an ease and flexibility that would never be possible in a lecture hall. By recording (or finding) digital stories from outside people and embedding these in your course, you can connect your online students to primary sources, differing viewpoints, and professional perspectives. It’s a way of making your online course a rich experience that transcends the old expectations of content as textbooks and lectures. (See the Distance Education team’s Multimedia and Digital Storytelling primer for more ideas.)

3. Have students create digital stories

To go beyond the traditional assessments—the term paper, the final exam, and so on—you can engage students in telling their own stories using digital tools. This type of assignment can be low-tech (a recorded PowerPoint, a Prezi, and audio interview) or elaborate (a video montage, an animation, a movie), depending on how much time you want to devote to the activity and how much scaffolding your students would need. (For an example, see “Scaling Up Team-Based Multimedia Assignments: A Case Study” based on a 2012 department Impact Grant.)

4. Frame each segment of your content, activities, and assessments with specific stories

A low-barrier/high-payoff way to engage students with stories is to give your weekly content and activities a real-world context, to frame students’ work in terms of a particular story or issue. For some disciplines, this might mean designing each unit around a specific issue in the news, or a particular case. You might also create a fictitious scenario or dilemma that gives students a relatable context for thinking about the week’s tasks and content.

5. Give students an authentic scenario-based assignment or simulation that carries on throughout the course

We learn by doing, and the more authentic and rich the tasks you give your students, the more meaningful and transferable their learning will be. If you can frame a whole set of tasks around the same story, you’ll give students a coherent structure for what they’re learning and doing in the course. (See the Distance Education team’s Active Learning page for suggestions about authentic activities.)