What’s in a Story? Using Student Narratives to Enhance Your Writing and Teaching

Bruce Punches has been teaching interpersonal and public communication at Kalamazoo Valley Community College for many years. He is also a licensed psychotherapist in private practice, specializing in marriage and family therapy.

As I strolled to class one day, a former student, Cliff, yelled out my name in the busy hallway. With a big grin, he gave me a high five and exclaimed, “Hey, Professor Punches! You remember the story you told us about the guy who put catnip on his pants to impress his date?” The story was one that a former student had shared in a previous class discussion about impression management, a concept I teach in my interpersonal communication class. I liked the story so much that I’ve been using it in my lectures ever since.

Bruce Punches
Image Credit: Bruce Punches

The gist of the story is that my former student wanted his third date to go exceptionally well. Knowing that his love interest was fond of cats, he put catnip on his pants. When he sat down on her couch, her two felines jumped on his lap and gave him a lot of attention. His dating partner was very impressed: “Wow, my cats really like you. They’re never this friendly.”

Impression management involves the things we say and do to influence how others perceive us. Evidently, my former student’s attempt at impression management worked—he bedazzled his date. . .but it could have backfired, something we discuss in class along with the ethics of impression management.

Clearly this story was memorable for Cliff, too, because he wanted me to know that he used the same story to explain his understanding of impression management in his introduction to psychology class. This reminded me of the value of storytelling and student narratives in college learning.

Stories breathe life into the concepts and theories we teach to our students.  Stories help learners remember what they’ve been taught, especially when the stories are relevant and relatable. According to research, what we remember is also influenced by our emotions. We’ll remember an event in greater detail if it elicits a feeling such as amusement, awe, sadness, joy, or fear. When we hear or share a story that (1) is tied to a concept or idea and (2) evokes a feeling, we may cement the concept or idea in our mind.1

This is my eighteenth year of teaching community college and technical education students. Over the course of my career, I’ve always wanted to feel more excited about my textbook selection. Unfortunately, most textbooks I reviewed were written primarily for university upper-class students and IPC majors, perhaps even scholars. The explanatory prose, at times, seemed a bit dry, detached. . .even boring. 

When Leslie Ramos Salazar and I first began writing the textbook It’s Interpersonal: An Introduction to Relational Communication, we spent a considerable amount of time talking to students about their learning needs and interests. We learned that relatable, resonant stories needed to be at the center of our work. To make the reading more relevant and thought-provoking, students suggested that we incorporate more narratives and short stories in our explanatory material. As we wrote the textbook, we paid close attention to the examples and stories our students shared with us during class discussion. This inspired us to incorporate their ideas in our work!

This feedback made a big impression on us. In order to generate the content students wanted to see from us, we relied on their ideas, which not only altered the way we wrote our book but also how we taught our classes. We spent more time in class encouraging students to demonstrate their understanding by relating a concept or theory to a personal life experience. We made a point to ask students to take a few minutes of silent thought to jot down a time when a certain interpersonal concept played a role in a past interaction. We also asked students to think of future instances when they could see themselves using a specific communication skill with a relational partner.

Something amazing happened as a result: students displayed a level of engagement we hadn’t seen before. For example, after teaching my students about a communication behavior called trapping—the act of making someone regret doing what you’ve asked—I gave my students time in class to jot down an instance when they may have used trapping or were on the receiving end of trapping. Next, I told students that I would call on a few of them to share what they wrote.  I called on one student, Heather, and this is what she shared:

“My friend kept prodding me to tell her about my new love interest. So I did. Later in the conversation she said, ‘I’m not going to trivialize your relationship with him by calling him a trophy boyfriend. . . .’ She smirked and quickly changed the subject. I caught the nuance of her sarcasm. She obviously didn’t think highly of me dating a much younger man. The more I thought about it, the more I resented her comment.”

I asked if Heather’s classmates could relate to her narrative in any way. Immediately, hands sprung up and students shared some of their own real-life experiences with trapping. Seeing students this engaged made me feel successful as a professor. Thinking that this example was an excellent way to illustrate trapping, I asked Heather if I could use what she shared in a future published work. Heather was delighted and said “yes” enthusiastically, and her personal narrative is now included in our chapter on perception. It’s one of the many student-generated narratives and personal accounts that have found their way into It’s Interpersonal as a result of our new approach to teaching.

So, if your goal is to generate more of a buzz in your classroom, tap into your students’ experiences. Give them a platform to share their stories, whether through in-class discussion, discussion posts on your LMS, or short reflective responses. It’s likely to improve their engagement with your writing and teaching!

1.  Walker, W. R., Skowronski, J. J., Gibbons, J. A., Vogl, R. J. and Ritchie, T. D. (2009). Why people rehearse their memories: Frequency of use and relations to the intensity of emotions associated with autobiographical memories. Memory. 17(7). 760—773.

See also:  Smith, S. D., Most, S. B., Newsome, L. A. and Zald, D. H. (2006). An emotion-induced attentional blink elicited by aversively conditioned stimuli. Emotion. 6(3). 523—527. Pillemer, D. B. (1984). Flashbulb memories of the assassination attempt on President Reagan. Cognition. 16(1). 63—80.

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