Integrating Narrative Structures into Teaching and Learning

Learning technology consultants at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have observed when faculty and students are crafting digital stories, they are most helped by three main activities:

  1. Reflection on how personal experience connects with course content
  2. Guidance and feedback during the process of crafting the story
  3. Sharing the completed story

1. Reflection

When we reflect on our own experiences, we make connections between data and events, thereby deriving meaning and retaining content. When students are given the opportunity to reflect on how their personal experiences integrate with course content and then use multimedia to help communicate their message, they engage with the material at a higher level. This results in a higher level of retention. When students make connections between personal experience and course content, they build understanding that surpasses “going for the grade” and encourages application beyond the classroom.

2. Guidance and Feedback

Determining specific project milestones during story production gives story producers a guideline for moving through the process and motivates them to meet deadlines. Examples of milestones that are good points for guidance and feedback are the first draft of the narrative, the storyboard, the rough video edit, and the final video.

Much of the reason why we tell stories and why stories stick in the minds of listeners is because of the transformation story element. As transformations befall the story’s characters, transformation may occur to the author and even to the listeners. When assigning a digital story project, help students identify the moment of transformation in their story. For example, if we look at the Dramatic Arc, transformation often occurs between the point of the inciting moment and the resolution. In the Kishōtenketsu model, transformation may not occur until the conclusion. Once the moment of transformation is identified, stories can be shaped by writing about how things were before the transformation and how things changed after the transformation. Different types of transformation—kinesthetic, intellectual, emotional, moral, and social—can be identified. This will help students tell the kind of stories that listeners will engage with.

Giving constructive feedback during story construction is practiced through a process called story circles. During digital storytelling workshops at University of Wisconsin, Madison, attendees are given guidelines for giving constructive feedback, then attendees participate in a story circle. During the story circle process, story drafts are shared and clarifying questions are asked to help the storyteller define the moment of transformation and articulate the core message through the use of images, movement, and sound. Receiving peer feedback builds group respect and trust and inspires storytellers to engage in the story production process.

When students critique other students’ stories, referring to a narrative structure may be helpful. A story need not conform exactly to a structure, but it should align in at least a few ways. Referencing narrative structures and giving students general guidance on how to give feedback will help keep the critiques constructive. Regularly reviewing other students’ work during multiple stages of production will improve critical thinking and group skills and inspire ideas for the reviewers’ own projects.

For more information on critique guidelines and effective group work visit the Engage Technology Enhanced Collaborative Group Work website at

3. Sharing

When stories are shared, learning continues beyond the production of the digital story. Audience participation and discussion cause the formation of interrelationships and connect the storyteller, the audience, and the story content. The audience and storyteller create new meaning by relating and further integrating the story to their personal experiences. When students know their work will be seen by a larger audience outside the classroom they tend to do better work. Consider finding venues for your student digital narrative assignments so they can be shown to the campus and larger community as part of the final presentation. For example, Assistant Professor Phillip Kim, School of Business, University of Wisconsin-Madison, gave his Technology Entrepreneurship students a digital story assignment asking them to tell the story of a product idea. The assignments were later shared with financial investors, giving students the opportunity to pitch their product ideas, learn more about what financial investors look for when investing in a product idea, and get feedback on their product presentations.

Closing Comments

As students engage in the authoring process, narrative structures can serve as an inspiring resource. If your students are creating a digital narrative, the narrative structure models can help them get started or improve existing work. Considering how their story aligns with all or part of a narrative structure can enhance the clarity and emotional impact of the story.

In the digital storytelling workshops at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, participants walk through a simple writing activity that begins to align story structure stages with their own story ideas. Once participants identify a structure for conveying their message, a remarkable shift occurs in their desire to write and in their confidence to convey their intended message.

There are a variety of cultural structures ready to be used in the classroom. While Western narrative structures can sometimes dominate our scholarly methods of writing, the use of other cultural structures can inform and enrich students’ writing comprehension and cultural awareness.

Additional UW-Madison story examples and resources can be viewed at or at the Sharing Learning Stories community forum.


This online resource was created by Cheryl Diermyer, Susan Simmons, and Chris Blakesley with additional support from David McHugh, Emmanuel Contreras, and John Thomson. Special thanks to the Engage Program and DoIT Academic Technology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for support of this resource.

If you questions regarding a have a narrative structure contact Cheryl Diermyer at


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