Keeping students engaged and learning through the “human hook”

September 8, 2020

This post is republished from Into Practicea biweekly communication of Harvard’s Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning

Maya JasanoffMaya Jasanoff, X. D. and Nancy Yang Professor of Arts and Sciences and Coolidge Professor of History, uses narratives to engage students and deepen their understanding of course content. From her Gen Ed course Ancestry to her upper-level seminar Narrative History: Art and Argument, Jasanoff demonstrates that “stories do not necessarily mean fiction; rather, stories are simply arguments based on the evidence. The former cannot exist without the latter.”

The benefits: Using storytelling in the classroom can enhance both understanding and enthusiasm with the material itself. Humanizing the material helps to engage students in class discussion, allows them to better link concepts in real-time, and strengthens the connections they make after class.

“The key point [with storytelling] is that students remember things better. They understand complexity better.”

The challenges: Instructors should be critical about what stories have been traditionally privileged in society versus ignored, and they should be prepared to challenge that prioritization in both lectures and students’ assumptions.

Takeaways and best practices

  • Connect information to clear examples or experiences. Questions and hooks that connect material to students’ everyday life help them better remember and apply class material. As Jasanoff describes, “There are certainly ways of rendering the past that can come across as lists of names or dates, but the meaning of what happened in the past has to do with the relationship between those things – it could be an argument or a story.”
  • Ask students to write their own narrative. Close readings of a variety of texts are conducted in the Narrative History course and Jasanoff takes time to discuss the ingredients of a narrative (time, character, how to embed argument or set a scene, etc.). Week by week they take a look at how authors have handled one of these issues and then students write their own.
  • Open lecture with a mystery to lure engagement. Beginning a lecture with an open-ended question like, “How could it be that ‘XYZ’ happens?” piques students’ curiosity. Making it “as clear and compact as possible” and then highlighting key takeaways at the end better keeps students’ attention.

Bottom line: Humans have long made meaning through stories. Any discipline can approach content through the “human hook.” Jasanoff makes an analogy between biology and history: “You can memorize all the parts of the body or a cell, but you won’t understand how it all works unless you understand it as a system.”