Using Narrative Structures to Inspire and Improve Writing for Digital Media Assignments


Storytelling is a universal means of teaching that crosses cultures, languages and time. Storytelling is one of the most consistently used elements of digital media assignments within higher education. This resource offers examples of several narrative structures, illustrative examples of each structure, and strategies for learning application. These Narrative Structures resources can be used by instructors to guide student writing by students who seek inspiration, or by learning technology consultants who assist with the design of pedagogically sound activities and practices.


In the 2010/2011 academic year, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Engage Program offered a Digital Media Assignment (DMA) Award that supported faculty integrating digital media assignments into their curricula. These assignments enabled student-demonstrated learning of course content through the creation of digital projects. As consultations with faculty progressed, campus learning technology consultants observed that stories were a common element across several assignments. Whether students created short video documentaries, first person narratives, online magazines, or enhanced podcasts, storytelling was present in the assignment.

The omnipresence of story across digital media assignments suggests storytelling is an implicitly required element of students' communication literacy. Both telling and listening to stories are central to cognitive methods of meaning-making. During campus integration of the use of stories in the curriculum, we observed a need for direct pedagogical support given to students for the creation of compelling stories. Faculty concurred. Based on input from faculty and learning technology support staff, we implemented this Narrative Structures website. We invite readers to consider and experiment with these structures to encourage student mastery of storytelling skills.

Establishing a Narrative Framework

Effective stories are essentially a sequence of events that engage audiences with content through emotion and meaning-making. Narrative structures demonstrate popular patterns of storytelling that have held up over time. These structures can serve as frames of reference (not formulas!) to help writers achieve coherence and re-conceptualize their work. Using formal narrative structures as guides help to feed one's creative imagination. They allow writers and producers to sift through a wide variety of information and identify relevant components that strengthen messages and engage audiences.

Using narrative with digital media-based assignments encourages the achievement of learning goals, as students contextualize content, reflect on experiences, connect concepts, conduct research, facilitate problem-solving, and build meaningful relationships through collaboration. For instance, in 2008, an informal digital storytelling pilot in two University of Wisconsin-Madison courses (Psychology and Human Ecology) included a media-based final assignment. Student evaluations of the digital storytelling assignments showed that 98% of the students who responded said the assignment helped to increase their understanding of course concepts, and 100% said the digital assignment inspired them to write. You can view student and faculty produced digital stories at