Have you ever been listening to a teacher and getting a bit bored as they drone on. Then they start telling a story about something that happened to them, and you perk up and listen? From a young age, we have been listening to stories. Stories can be interesting, exciting, strange, or ordinary. But since people are used to listening to stories, it can be a very effective teaching technique and can aid in retention of your subject.
So let me tell you a story.
A student was once having trouble distinguishing the terms Crural ( the front or anterior side of the lower leg, the shins) and Sural (The back of the leg, calf area). So I told her, “Imagine that a little boy comes up to you and kicks you in the shins. That’s Cru-el!” (Cruel/Crural). Matching the pun with the image of the boy kicking her gave her the hook she needed to remember that Crural was on the front of the leg. Knowing that, she could deduce that Sural must be the back.
I’ve taught the importance of washing hands by telling a story about Childbed Fever: There was a hospital with two maternity wards. One was staffed by Doctors, and one by midwives. The ward with Doctors had many women who were dying of childbed fever after the birth of their children. The ward with the midwives did not have as many cases. The Doctor Ignaz Semmelweis theorized that the doctors themselves carried the contagious elements on their hands transferring it from woman to woman in the ward when they did vaginal examinations. He instituted a policy of washing hands with chlorine, and the death rate dropped.
Now I used this to tell students how washing hands can save lives. But I can also use it to tell how pride can cause deaths. Midwives had long washed hands before births and examinations, but doctors at the time discounted these rituals as “old wives tales” and superstition. Even when Semmelweis showed that washing hands reduced the death rate by 90%, most doctors did not accept or follow his advice. He was fired from the hospital, his ideas were mostly discredited, and he died in an asylum for the insane.
Stories stick in the mind. They encourage empathy. They more fully engage the brain giving facts context and making them easier to remember. So take a hard point in your subject and try to find stories that will illustrate that point. Try picking an exercise from the list below and watch as your students perk up and hopefully become more enlightened.
EXERCISE: Write a story that…
- Introduces a controversial topic.
- Teaches a vocabulary word.
- Helps remember an equation.
- Illustrates how you learned something.
- Tells the relevance of a topic to the larger world.
- Illustrates the historical context of a subject.
- Introduces a hard to understand topic.
- Tells a little known detail.
- Adds depth to a subject that is normally taught in a straightforward manner.
- Helps prevent the wrong interpretation of a topic.
- Gives context to an ethical problem.
- Helps one remember the order of a process.
in a hospital where the patients in the midwife’s ward were doing well, but the ones in the doctor’s ward were not.