It’s Not What You Teach, It’s HOW You Teach: A Story-Driven Approach to Course Design

Concurrent Session 11

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Session Materials

Brief Abstract

Learning is more effective and organic when we teach through the art of storytelling. At Strayer University, we are blending the principles story-driven learning with research-based instructional design practices to create engaging learning experiences. This session will provide you with strategies to strategically infuse stories into any lesson, course, or curriculum.


Katrina Rainer, MEd, is the Learning Designer at Strategic Education Inc. This innovative team works together to infuse curriculum with episodic, documentary-style films that engage students and bring courses to life. With 10+ years in the field of education (K-12 and Higher-Ed) Katrina is passionate about providing quality education to all types of learners. Her main focus is to design and develop solutions that help learners build the knowledge, skills, and abilities they need to be successful. Education Master's of Education, Curriculum and Instruction Concentration in Instructional Design and Technology George Mason University, Fairfax, VA Bachelor's of Arts, Elementary Education and Teaching Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI Concentration: Mathematics
With over 17 years of experience developing adult-centered online programs, Jennifer knows what drives student success— learning experiences that connect academic content to learners’ own lives in realistic, relevant, and relatable ways. Jennifer has managed e-learning initiatives and operations for public, private, and for-profit institutions of higher education. She has led the development of solutions focused on scaling instructional design processes using Lean and project management principles while building infrastructures to keep pace with the evolving state of online higher education. Jennifer earned a BA in Corporate Communication from Marietta College, an MAEd in Adult Education and Distance Learning from the University of Phoenix, and a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership from The University of Dayton. She is also a graduate of the OLC's Institute for Emerging Leadership in Online Education.

Extended Abstract

Session Objectives

  • Explain the benefits of using a story-driven approach to design online learning experiences.

  • Describe the key considerations for designing a story-driven learning experience.

  • Describe the primary elements of a story-driven learning experience.


Think of the last great story that you heard. Why is it so memorable? What emotions does it evoke? What did you learn from the story? Story (narrative) is the oldest form of teaching and is fundamental to how we think, learn, and construct meaning in the world (Bruner, 1986). People around the world have always told tales as a way of passing down their cultural beliefs, traditions, and history to future generations. It is a timeless method of communication that uses real-world events to connect with an audience (learners). Many students who choose to enroll in an online learning program are nontraditional learners – students who are juggling work, school and family commitments -- so it’s imperative that we meet our students where they are and provide them with relevant and engaging content. Designing content around real-world stories does just that!

Stories are the way we store information in the brain. The human brain is hard-wired to think in terms of a beginning, middle, and end. We remember facts gained through narrative better than in through other means of delivery. Research has shown that students with low motivation and weak academic skills are more likely to listen, read, write, and work hard in the context of storytelling (U.S. Department of Education, 1986). In an online learning setting, storytelling through video is a powerful medium for engaging students with course content. It can solidify the purpose of instruction and increase sense of connectedness (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000), which ultimately builds learner confidence in the online environment.

Although storytelling is a timeless and powerful instructional method for online learning, just any old story won’t do! You need to carefully choose stories to maximize learning (and it takes skill to tell a really good story). Strayer University partnered expert storytellers with instructional designers to help pave the way to story-driven course design

Strayer Studios presents real people with compelling stories to make classroom lessons relatable. Every story featured in a Strayer Studios course was created with a specific lesson in mind. Our faculty and instructional designers aim to develop and tell stories grounded in our curriculum to achieve specific learning outcomes. We’d like to share our story with you!

In this session, facilitators will guide participants through Bybee’s (1997) five stages of sequence for teaching and learning (engage, explore, explain, elaborate, and evaluate) to describe the benefits of using a story-driven approach to design online learning experiences,  describe the key considerations for designing a story-driven learning experience, and outline the primary elements of a story-driven learning experience.

Engage: Facilitators will introduce the concept of story-driven learning. To ignite interest in the topic, participants will view a powerful/emotion-evoking story/video. Then they will respond to a digital poll and discuss their experience in learning through storytelling to uncover their background knowledge on the topic. Facilitators will then explain the effectiveness of using storytelling as an instructional method. During this process, participants will draw from prior knowledge to engage in an interactive discussion to uncover what they know and think about a story-driven approach to designing online learning experiences.

Explore: Participants will discuss the use of story-driven learning in content development by exploring the essential components of a story-driven course, and outlining best practices of story-driven course design.

Explain: Facilitators will guide participants through specific strategies and key considerations for designing story-driven learning experiences by illustrating formal terms, definitions, and explanations for designing story-driven learning experiences. Participants will learn how to use the ICAP (intent, context, action, and point) method (Nuriddin, 2018) to build learning content around a story.

Elaborate: Thorough a group discussion activity, participants will explore the implications of their new knowledge and make connections with the curriculum of their respective programs.  They will further their knowledge by discussing how they can use a story-driven approach to designing engaging online learning experiences. Participants will engage with the workshop topics as they make connections between the story-driven learning and their curriculum.

Evaluate: In this final stage, the facilitators will provide suggestions on how to capture analytics to assess learning and engagement when using a story-driven approach to design online learning experiences and check for understanding via audience Q&A.




Bruner, J. (1986). Actual minds, possible worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bybee, R. W. (1997). Achieving scientific literacy: From purposes to practices. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Garrison, D.R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-105.

Empowering Students: The 5E Model Explained. (Lesley University). Retrieved from