Why teachers should present new material as stories

In this post Cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham writes about how students best learn new material. Willingham is a professor and director of graduate studies in psychology at the University of Virginia and author of “Why Don’t Students Like School?” His latest book is “When Can You Trust The Experts? How to tell good science from bad in education.” This appeared on his Science and Education blog.

By Daniel Willingham

I have written before about the potential power of narrative to help students understand and remember complex subject matter (Willingham, 2004; 2009). A study (Arya & Maul, 2012) provides fresh evidence that putting to-be-learned material in a story format improves learning outcomes.The experiment tested 209 seventh and eighth grade students in the United States on texts about the discoveries of Galileo OR the discoveries of Marie Curie. The texts were developed to be as similar as possible in terms of syntactic complexity, vocabulary, accuracy, and other measures, and vary only in whether the information was presented in a typical expository fashion or in terms of a personal story of the scientist.

For example, one section of the expository text included this passage:

And with this simple, powerful tool [Galilean telescope], we can see many details when we use it to look up into the night sky. The moon may look like a smooth ball of light covered with dark spots, but on a closer look through this telescope, we can see deep valleys and great mountain ranges. Through the telescope, we can now see all the
different marks on the moon’s surface.

The corresponding passage in the narrative version read this way:

When Galileo looked through his new telescope, he could see the surface of the moon, and so he began his first close look into space. He slept during the day in order to work and see the moon at night. Many people thought that the moon was a smooth ball with a light of its own. Now that Galileo had a closer look through his telescope, he realized that the moon’s surface had mountains and valleys.

Students comprehension and memory for the information in the text was measured immediately after reading it, and again one week later. The difference in recall between the narrative and non-narrative versions are shown as difference scores below.

These are difference scores, so taller bars reflect a greater advantage for the narrative version. The advantage of the story over expository was significant in all conditions except the Curie passage at the short delay.

Science lends itself naturally to narrative structure–authors can tell the stories of individual scientists, their struggles, their discoveries, and so on.There’s a case to be made that it also lends itself to a triumphalist view of science that is not accurate; scientists as heroes in an ever-progressing march towards Truth. Since Kuhn, that more or less Popperian view of science has been viewed as at least too simple, and more likely inaccurate.

But if it helps middle schoolers understand science, I’m inclined not worry too much about that point.

Instead, I’d like to broaden the view of “narrative.” (I made this point in my book, “Why Don’t Students Like School.”) You don’t have to think of narrative just as the story of an individual or group of people; you can think more abstractly conflict, complications, and the eventual resolution of conflict as the core of narrative structure.

I prefer to think of narrative in this broader sense because it is more flexible, and gives teachers more options, and also better captures the aspects of narrative structure that I suspect are behind the advantage conferred.


Arya, D. J. & Maul, A. (2012). The role of the scientific discovery narrative in middle school science education: An experimental study. Journal of Educational Psychology, 104, 1022-1032.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.



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Valerie Strauss · June 3, 2013