Faculty Focus


Teaching a Course as a Narrative Arc

abstract arc with geometric shapes

Tell your class a story. Students will better connect to the instructor and coursework with “stories that both induce feeling and help us to understand what we are feeling” (Noddings, 1996). Stories offer a “connect the dots” aspect to learning by providing structure and meaning for students (Bolkan, 2021). They improve attention during class and retention of the discussed material (Kromka and Goodboy, 2019). Consider planning a semester-long story that emphasizes what you believe are the most important course elements. Don’t think in terms of which individual stories can be placed within individual lessons, but how the pieces fit into a semester-long, cohesive narrative. Offer students a novel, or complete a screenplay they can take from your course instead of short stories or individual scenes. Bake the approach into your course from the beginning.

When thinking of the beginning, it is most effective to start at the end. Where do you want your students to be at the end of the semester? Consider what you will assess and what specific content you believe is the most important and useful for your students. Rather than travel the traditional path for course construction by first choosing course materials and connecting various elements together in a syllabus, work from the endpoint. Backwards design, effective in college as well as K-12 (Reynolds and Kearns, 2017), has you conceive your path based on the destination.

Choose materials and lessons that will ladder the learning. Create a semester-long narrative arc that will help connect your lessons into a compelling, coherent story. Ask yourself what themes students can build on. This will provide insight on the ideas that need strong reinforcement in order for students to gain mastery of what you believe is most important. The next steps for you as an author are to search out primary, secondary, and maybe even optional information sources supporting the narrative. Place them strategically throughout your calendar. As you outline your weeks, lessons, and hi- and low-stakes assessments, consider what needs to go where when creating an effective narrative. Use and speak to the materials that work in those places. Some authors work from the inside out and others outside in, but all successful ones bring the same elements to their finished work. It is not important that the class knows the technique behind the creation, only that you help them find connections to their life learning that engages their mind.

The impact of your story will rely on how well you tell it and how it is received. This begins with your syllabus. Your syllabus has multiple goals, including making all students feel welcomed, motivating their learning, providing them a timetable for their own planning, communicating expectations regarding participation and other course requirements, and introducing them to course, college, and career resources (Slattery and Carlson, 139). Seeded throughout the course calendar is what you think is most important.  Do you remember every fact your instructors recited to you? Focus on what interests you about the subject, because if you are not a passionate believer in your story, your audience won’t be either.

What should be the takeaways from each class? What stories can you intersperse among the lecture to connect students to the ideas? How can you construct cooperative learning opportunities to aid students in discovering learning for themselves, a process shown to offer an even greater connection to what you are teaching (Shimazon and Aldrich, 2010). Keep focus on the names, ideas, or applications that are also key in other units. Emphasize connections to other units when they come up in lecture or discussion to remind students there is one story they are participating in, and that they are not passive participants.

Serve students who may never take another course in this area with the key names, ideas, and applications you believe will best encourage their lifelong learning. Tell the story you believe in—that is the story your students will take with them.

Kent Oswald received an MA from Manhattanville College in teaching and is pursuing a second MA at the City University of New York in American studies. He teaches communication courses (business writing, media studies) at CUNY. Additional information at kentoswald.com.


Bolkan, San. “Storytelling in the Classroom: Facilitating Cognitive Interest by Promoting Attention, Structure, and Meaningfulness.” Communication Reports, vol. 34, no. 1, Jan. 2021, pp. 1–13.

Kromka, Stephen M., and Alan K. Goodboy. “Classroom Storytelling: Using Instructor Narratives to Increase Student Recall, Affect, and Attention.” Communication Education, vol. 68, no. 1, Jan. 2019, pp. 20–43.

Noddings, Nel. “Stories and Affect in Teacher Education.” Cambridge Journal of Education, vol. 26, no. 3, Nov. 1996, p. 435.

Reynolds, Heather L., and Katherine Dowell Kearns. “A Planning Tool for Incorporating Backward Design, Active Learning, and Authentic Assessment in the College Classroom.” College Teaching, vol. 65, no. 1, Jan. 2017, pp. 17–27.

Shimazoe, Junko, and Howard Aldrich. “Group Work Can Be Gratifying: Understanding & Overcoming Resistance to Cooperative Learning.” College Teaching, vol. 58, no. 2, 2010, pp. 52-57.

Slattery, Jeanne M., and Janet F. Carlson. “Preparing an Effective Syllabus: Current Best Practices.” College Teaching, vol. 53, no. 4, 2005, pp. 159–164.