The Storyline Course: Using Narrative Structure to Create an Inclusive Online Introductory Psychology Course

Concurrent Session 5

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

Get to Graduation is an innovative online psychology course that uses a branching narrative format to create an inclusive course design. This discovery session will describe storyline courses, share perceptions from a student cohort that took a storyline class, and introduce attendees to narrative possibilities in their own classes.


Shelley Evans is an instructional designer for the First in The World Grant at Wake Technical Community College. Shelley holds a PhD in Psychology with emphasis in Cognition and Instruction and a Master’s degree in Special Education. Shelley has been teaching online since 2009 and was previously a full-time online faculty member at Grand Canyon University. Shelley enjoys studying best practices in online learning. In her free time she loves travelling and spending time outdoors.

Additional Authors

Chris is an associate professor of psychology at Wake Technical Community College who specializes in online education. He is currently the co-PI of a four year FIPSE grant to develop more engaging models of education for minority students. He and his family are avid baseball fans and love going to new major league ballparks

Extended Abstract

Introduction: The Storyline Course

Student engagement, performance, and retention in online education are major concerns for  in higher education (Allen & Seaman, 2014). Wake Technical Community College is no exception, with student success rates in some gateway introductory courses at less than 50%. As part of a Department of Education grant, an instructional team developed a course designed to have a positive impact on minority student performance (Adams, 1992; Ruggs & Hebl, 2012; Ibarra, 2001; Smith & Ayers, 2006; Gay, 2010). Get to Graduation is the second iteration of a class using an innovative “storyline” design in which the course content is woven into a narrative structure. The Gilbert series was developed with the goal of creating four characters that represented the diverse nature of Wake Tech’s campus. The cast of characters included: Daphne, a gay African American female character; Anish, an international student from India with a learning disability; Maria, a second generation Hispanic American; and Gilbert, a Caucasian military veteran with PTSD and inspiration for the class. Each week, student learning activities are centered around the evolving stories of one of these four character as they meet the challenges of being a Wake Tech student.

A Story Course Example: The Development of the Gilbert Series

The first iteration, known as Operating Graduating Gilbert (OGG), included a storyline, as well as a spy themed gamification element. The storyline element included a weekly narrative in which one of the college student characters faced a challenge that became the focus of the week’s homework assignment. Spy theme videos featuring the instructor introduced each week’s storyline as part of an ongoing mission where students could earn badges and rank promotion. This course design was inclusive as each of  characters was represented at least three time in the weekly homework assignments. This unique course was deployed during the 2017/18 school year, and was selected to receive a highly coveted Blackboard Exemplary Course Award. Student evaluations were mostly positive, with students finding all elements of the course to be engaging. Student feedback suggested directions for further enhancing engagement of the OGG course.

A second iteration of this class was developed that included two major changes based on feedback from students and 3 peer reviewers. For the second iteration, Get to Graduation (G2G), the  spy-themed gamification was removed from the course, as feedback from peer reviewers suggested the addition of a second story to be a bit confusing . The second change was to expand the use of the storyline design to make the course even more inclusive for minority students. Four complete narratives that spanned the course were developed, one for each character. This allowed each student to individualize their educational experience by selecting the character they wanted to focus on for the week’s homework assignment.  

Evaluation of the Storyline Course

The Get to Graduation course will be evaluated  during the 2018/2019 school year to assess the impact of this inclusive design on on student perceptions and outcomes. The presenters will share  preliminary data from a limited deployment in two classes during the fall 2018 semester. These data will shed light two questions:

Question #1:  Is there a demonstrated preference for particular narratives among students? Specifically, will students choose to follow one character, or multiple characters. Are students more likely to pick characters whose ethnicity matches theirs?

Question #2: Is this demonstrated preference for a similar character associated with student engagement, satisfaction, and performance, and do these effects hold for students of different backgrounds?

The full deployment of this course into six sections of introductory will occur during the spring 2019 semester. Attendee feedback and suggestions  regarding the course design, alternate hypotheses, or measures of interest that can be incorporated during the full deployment are welcome. The presenters are interested in studying the impact that multiethnic narrative models have in multiple learning settings and are looking for collaborators who want to develop and test the storyline model in their classes.

OLC Attendee Takeaway - Create Your Own Story Class

This short presentation is designed to achieve three goals. The first is to introduce the concept of the storyline course, and provide a concrete example of what one might look like.  The second goal is to provide an evaluation of this course design to see if this storyline adaptation met the objectives that guided it’s development. Finally, and most importantly, the hope is that OLC attendees will also consider how narrative elements can be integrated into their own classes to impact student engagement. Online Getting Started handouts will be available for attendees who want to begin exploring how to add narrative elements to their online classes to increase engagement.

Acknowledgement: This work was supported by the U.S. Department of Education grant no. P116F150082


Adams, M. (1992). Cultural inclusion in the American college classroom. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 1992(49), 5–17.

Allen, I. E., & Seaman, J. (2014). Grade level: Tracking online education in the United States, 2011.Babson Park, MA: Babson  Survey Research Group. Retrieved from http://www.

Gay, G. (2010). Acting on beliefs in teach education for cultural diversity. Journal of Teacher Education, 61 (1-2), 143-152. DOI:

Ibarra, R. (2000). Studying Latinos in a “virtual” university: Reframing diversity and academic culture change. Occasional Paper No. 68. Latino Studies Series. East Lansing, MI: Julian Samora Research Institute,

Ruggs, E., & Hebl, M. (2012). Diversity, Inclusion, and Cultural Awareness for Classroom and Outreach Education.In B. Bogue & E. Cady (Eds.). Apply Research to Practice (ARP) Resources. Retrieved Nov, 2017 from

Smith, D. & Ayers, D. (2006). Culturally responsive pedagogy and online learning: implications for the globalized community college. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 30 (5/6) , 401-415