Professor, Tell Us a Story: Using the UofU Course Design Cards to Construct Better Learning Narratives

Concurrent Session 5 & 6 (combined)
Streamed Session

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Brief Abstract

This workshop will introduce participants to a story-telling approach that will help them design assignments from a student-centered perspective. Participants will work with the UofU Course Design Cards to map out a course structure including: an overall vision for the course, a progression through sequential achievements, and planned reflection exercises.

NOTE:  Participants of this session will need to download the two files (1 PDF and 1 PPT) in session materials prior to the workshop in order to have an on-hand experience for this workshop.  We strongly recommend participants check out these two files, especially the PDF file, prior to the session in order to maximize engagement in the session.

Sponsored By


Qin Li is a senior instructional designer and researcher at TLT. She holds an M.S. and a Ph.D. in Instructional Technology from Utah State University. She has more than a decade of experience working with faculty in higher education designing and developing courses.  She is interested in exploring different instructional design models designing significant learning experiences and introducing innovative practices in class to facilitate teaching and learning. She believes in life-long learning in instructional designers, teachers, and students alike.   She enjoys listening to music, gardening, cooking for her family, and engaging in outdoor activities, such as hiking and fishing, and skiing. She has a lovely yellow lab named Buddy.
Jon Thomas is the Director of Teaching and Learning Technologies at the University of Utah. Jon has a long history working with education technologies including his previous work at enPraxis/COSL, helping to develop the Open Courseware platform, eduCommons. He earned a Ph.D. in Instructional Technology and Learning Sciences at Utah State University. His interests include agile course development, the influence of technology on higher education culture, and community engagement in online environments.

Extended Abstract


A group of learning experience designers and researchers at the University of Utah developed the UofU Course Design Cards with the purposes of facilitating collaborative design discussions between learning experience designers and faculty, and encouraging faculty to adopt more engaging ways of teaching. The first edition of the UofU Course Design Cards was released under a Creative Commons Share-Alike License to share with colleagues across institutions. It was also presented as an Innovate Lab session at OLC Innovate in 2019 (Li & Thomas, 2019) and was welcomingly received. During the past year, the University of Utah held multiple workshops for faculty at our University using these design cards. Faculty participants varied in their backgrounds ranging all the way from new instructors attending orientation events to accomplished faculty who were assigned to teach long-established survey courses. The feedback received for the UofU Course Design Cards has been overwhelmingly positive. Most of the workshop participants have found the approach engaging, easy to use, and instrumental in helping them design rich, robust and focused course activities.

The reported benefits of using the UofU Course Design Cards include the following:

  • Encourages faculty to think about a topic in alternative ways
  • Helps instructors focus on new types of learning and integrate new approaches to teaching not considered previously
  • Helps instructors be more coherent in course design by providing visibility into the logical structure of the course
  • Encourages the reasoning through of curriculum decisions and the selection of appropriate learning tasks

An iterative approach has been taken in the development of these cards. During the current iteration of the cards we have found further improvements that will be added to the next version. In particular, we’ve noticed that some instructors who use the design cards (especially those who have not had a lot of experience teaching or designing courses) need help contextualizing the activities that they have chosen to incorporate in their classes. Also, we observed multiple instances of instructors sequencing activity cards together to identify knowledge development throughout a course. Given these observations, we decided to provide a scaffold for instructors so that the affordances of this gamified design approach can be maximized. After some research, we came up with a storytelling framework to pair with these design cards to facilitate these more complex course designs.




Storytelling is built into our makeup as human beings. We use stories to develop connections with friends, establish family traditions, share experiences, and teach moral lessons. Stories are considered the oldest and most natural form of sense making (Jonassen & Hernandez-Serrano, 2002) and are the “means [by] which human beings give meaning to their experience of temporality and personal actions” (Polkinghore, 1988). While stories have obviously been the primary instrument of analysis in the field of language art and literature, they have more recently become an accepted tool for analysis in other fields as well. Toward the late 20th century, as the major concern of social disciplines, such as cognitive psychology, philosophy, education, and humanities, shifted toward meaning-making (Bruner, 1990), narrative began to play an increasingly important role. Storytelling is not only used in classroom for pedagogical purposes, but also in the field of instructional/learning design as technique for developing engaging learning environments (Jonassen & Hernandez-Serrano, 2002; Parrish, 2006; McDonald, 2009; Parrish, 2009). For example, Jonassen and Hernandez-Serrano (2002) describes the benefits of stories as a method for encouraging problem solving; and Roger Schank (2005) gave his insights on how story centered curriculum can be used to support students who are practicing and mastering skills in roles similar to what their prospective job will require. Brown and Duguid (2000) describe the vital influence that stories have within organizations in preserving institutional competencies and culture. 

McDonald (2009) suggests there are great similarities between the process of storytelling and that of instructional design. Principles of storytelling can be well adapted to instructional purpose. According to Bruner (1990), one of the major functions that telling stories has is as a method for negotiating and renegotiating meaning. In this sense, stories help people to learn, to conserve memory, or to alter their understandings of past experiences.

In our own work with the design cards, the power of storytelling allowed faculty members to establish an overall vision for their courses.  Specifically, we observed that when instructors were asked to articulate their proposed learning experiences to others, they could make better sense of the meaning of their work and that it prompted them to be open to changing the ways they go about designing and teaching their courses.


Workshop interaction and interactivity

Patrick Parrish in his article of “Design as story-telling” (2006) states that the most critical instructional design skill is learner empathy or “the ability to step outside one’s own perspective and see the design through the learners’ eyes”. In the case of course design as a collaborative endeavor between an instructional designer and an instructor, it is important for the team to design the learning “voyage” from the student perspective, the protagonist of the learning adventure story.

This workshop pairs the UofU Course Design cards and a story-telling approach to engage instructors in designing appealing course activities with clearly articulated goals from a learner’s perspective. In doing so, the workshop teaches learning designers and faculty how to bridge communication between their respective worlds.

The story-telling framework proposed in this workshop is by no means a prescriptive formula for designing course activities. Instead, the intention is to provide a structure and suggest parameters for instructors to consider when developing course activities so that the content can be thoroughly thought through based on the specific context/needs of the course.


Workshop outline

  • Participants will receive a basic introduction to the cards with examples of how to use them.
  • Participants will individually work on a case study involving a Driver’s Ed Instructor who is assigned to prepare a lesson for students. Discussion will follow the case study work with participants sharing their experience in using the cards.
  • Participants will work on a real-world scenario from their own experience.
  • Participants will flesh out their plans using a provided 6-element ideation tool to specify what the students will be doing in the activities (e.g., tasks, rationale, expectations, tools, and time frame).
  • The storytelling framework will be introduced showing participants how to sequence activities over the course of several modules and/or the course.
  • Further direction will be given regarding the storytelling framework introducing three important storytelling concepts: vision, achievement, and reflection.
  • Participants will incorporate these new storytelling concepts into their course design.
  • Participants will share their instructional narratives with each other, and then by invitation to the rest of the workshop participants.



After participating in the workshop participants will be able to:

  • Identify the logical structure of their course
  • Provide justification for the choices made in designing course activities
  • Describe the planned student achievements for their course
  • See their course through a student-centered perspective, influencing the choices they make during course design.



Brown, J. S. & Duguid, P. (2000). The social life of information. Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business School Press.

Bruner, J. (1990). Act of meaning. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Jonassen, D. H., & Hernandez-Serrano, J. (2002). Case-based reasoning and instructional deign: using stories to support problem solving. Educational Technology Research and Development, 50(2), 65-77.

Li, Q., & Thomas, J. (2019). Instructional design, the ID card game. Innovation lab session presented at OLC Innovate 2019, Denver, CO.

McDonald, J. K. (2009). Imaginative instruction: what master storytellers can teach instructional designers. Educational Media International. 46(2), 111-122. doi: 10.1080/09523980902933318

Parrish, P. (2006). Design as storytelling. TechTrends, 50(4), 72-82.

Parrish, P. (2009). Aesthetic principles for instructional design. Educational Technology Research Development. 57(4), 511-528.

Polkinghore, D. (1988). Narrative knowing and the human sciences. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Schank, R.C. (2005). Every curriculum tells a story. Retrieved Sept. 5th, 2019, from