Nicole Alea Albada (University of California, Santa Barbara)
One of the most influential papers that I read in graduate school was one by Alan Baddeley (1988) titled, “But, what the hell is it for?” The title, of course, was brave and bold, but so was the content. Baddeley and other cognitive psychologists at the time (e.g., Neisser, 1978) argued for an ecological approach to the study of memory. They argued that memory researchers needed to move outside of the confined parameters of the lab to study memory in people’s everyday ecologies. Doing so would move researchers beyond questions about how the memory system works (i.e., the mechanics of memory) to questions about memory’s real-world usefulness or function. I followed in this tradition as an autobiographical memory researcher asking questions over the years about the functions of remembering and sharing the personal past with others in a variety of ecologies (e.g., lifephase, cultural, and online contexts). In recent years, I have become interested in the functions of remembering and sharing stories of one’s personal past in the classroom ecosystem. Why? Because I noticed that I do it often so it must be serving a purpose.
For example, on the first day of my research methods course, I tell students my life story - that I grew up in Key West, Florida, a small island that is the Southernmost point in the Continental United States; that I come from a family of pharmacists (great-grandfather, dad, sister) but that I took a different path in my academics to study psychology; that I stayed in Florida to earn my PhD at the University of Florida so that I could be close to my extended Cuban family; that I met my husband there and that he and our teenage son are obsessive surfers so I spend most of my free time at the beach; that we lived on the Caribbean island of Trinidad and Tobago for over ten years where I taught research methods and statistics at the University of the West Indies before coming to teach them at the University of California Santa Barbara.
I am not the only instructor that seems to share personal stories, like the one above, with their students. It is quite common. For instance, a survey conducted by Houska and colleagues (2015) of 100 university psychology professors found that 91% of teachers reported using stories at least occasionally over the last five years of teaching and, of those, 89% were informal personal stories or brief self-disclosures. Why might personal story sharing be so commonplace? My proposition, from a functional approach, is that it must be serving some purpose in the context of the classroom and instructional ecology. What might these functions be?
Teaching and Learning Function of Personal Stories
The scholarship of teaching and learning literature is peppered with many and diverse suggestions about the reasons why instructors share personal stories with students (e.g., Brakke & Houska, 2015). Perhaps the most common suggestion, which matches well with the objectives of our profession, is that instructors’ personal stories are shared with students to help them better learn and retain information. For instance, the instructors in the Houska and colleague’s (2015) survey said that they tell stories because it helps the course material “come to life for students” and as such “stories are what students remember” (p. 22). Landrum and colleagues (2019) also home in on the power of stories to help students learn and retain information. They reviewed work which indicates that stories pull students into material for deeper learning because stories are interesting, feel relevant, and are in a form (narrative) that is familiar and easily accessible for students.
We have found similar evidence for what we have coined as the teaching and learning function of personal stories in our own correlational work (Alea & Osfeld, 2022). We surveyed student’s perceptions of my use of personal stories when teaching research methods for psychology. Students reported that the stories that I shared with them - like those about my husband’s very-distant fourth-place finish in a swim race to demonstrate ordinal scale of measurement, or the time when I was an undergraduate research assistant and caught an older adult writing down a list of vocabulary words that he did not know so that he would get them correct on the next assessment as an example of a (blatant) practice effect - helped them to better understand the material from “quite a bit” to “very much.” Students openly expressed that the stories were helping them learn, with comments like: “She would talk about example[s] related to her son that helped [me] remember experiment designs” and “I liked all the examples [personal stories] because they showed how to apply the topics we were learning in class to real life situations, and it made conceptual topics more concrete and understandable.” Thus, evidence from correlational and anecdotal studies, and from both instructors’ and students’ perspectives seems to suggest that instructor’s personal stories have the power to serve a teaching and learning function.
Socioemotional Functions of Personal Stories
Personal stories also seem to have the power to serve other non-academically oriented, but I would argue, equally important functions for students. For example, through the snippet of my life story shared above, I am hoping that students infer that: I come from a small town but made it to a big university; that I value diversity and other cultures, that family is important to me, that it is okay to take your own path and diverge from expectations, and that they should feel confident in me teaching their course because of my experiences. I could have just told my students all of this, but instead I tell them through story, believing that it speaks volumes. Sharing this personal story with my students is not teaching them more about the content of research methods, so it is not serving a teaching and learning function, but is likely serving other socioemotional functions that are relevant to a student’s experience as they navigate courses and university.
To better understand and systematically delineate what these socioemotional functions of personal stories in the instructional context might be, we have developed the Personal Stories in Teaching (PST) Survey (Alea, Adams, & Mohiuddin, 2022). The items for the survey were constructed by pulling ideas from the teaching and learning (e.g., Brakke & Houska, 2015) and autobiographical memory functions literature (e.g., Bluck & Alea, 2011), as well as by asking expert university instructors why they share personal stories with their students. Factor analysis indicated that in addition to the teaching and learning function of personal stories, instructors were telling students about their personal experiences in order to serve four other specific functions:
● The social bonding function, which involves instructors sharing personal stories with students to create connections, by letting them know more about us and the ways that we may be similar to them, and in doing so creating an overall more positive and communal learning environment.
● The directive function, which involves instructors sharing personal stories with students about accomplishments and missteps that we have had, in an effort to help direct students’ pathways.
● The empathic function, which involves instructors sharing personal stories with students to help them feel better when they have not succeeded at something and to provide reassurance that will help students to grow in emotional ways.
● The identity function, which involves instructors sharing personal stories with students as a way to encourage them to explore other cultures and perspectives as a means to promote further self-exploration and understanding.
Incorporating Personal Stories into Instruction
I would very much like to end this post with strong evidence-based suggestions for how to implement personal stories when teaching so that they are functional for students. I would like to provide suggestions for, for example: How long should the stories be? How personal should they be? When in a lecture, beginning or end, might a personal story best serve a teaching and learning function? Are personal stories always functional? This, after all, seems to be what instructors want. In 2014 - almost a decade ago now - there was a call from the Society for Teaching of Psychology’s Story Task Force to provide evidence about the efficacy of stories as an instructional tool and a set of guidelines for how to best use stories when teaching. The culmination of this call to action was a free edited book, Telling Stories: The Art and Science of Storytelling as an Instructional Strategy (Brakke & Houska, 2015). The book, and work that followed, is full of instructors’ ideas for how they use stories in their own courses and quasi-experimental studies conducted in classes about the efficacy of personal stories for teaching.
I have been thinking recently, however, that it might be time to bring some of the work exploring the functional outcomes of personal stories in the classroom back into lab-based settings so that variables - like content, timing, and outcomes - can be better controlled. This is hard for me to suggest, given my theoretical foundation in the ecological memory movement. However, I feel compelled to do so because two recent, separate lab-based studies (Alea & Osfeld, 2022; Kromka & Goodboy, 2019), with similar well-controlled methodology, in which lecture content was delivered with and without a personal story, showed little to no improvement for student learning when a personal story was included. The reasons for not finding evidence to support a teaching and learning function of personal stories are many: perhaps the story manipulation was too weak, or in the wrong location in the lecture to be effective, or perhaps a one-time lecture presentation with a single personal story does not mimic well the story sharing experience that occurs in the context of a classroom during the course of an entire term in which socioemotional functions of personal stories are also playing a part in learning. These are all questions that remain to be answered, and a nuanced approach with lab-based and in situ research designs are needed. The end result will give us the full story of the functions of personal stories in instruction.
Alea, N., Adams, P., & Mohiuddin, H. (October 2022). The Personal Stories in Teaching (PST) Survey: Exploring why instructors share personal stories with students. Society for the Teaching of Psychology’s 21st Annual Conference on Teaching, Pittsburgh, PA, USA.
Alea, N. & Osfeld, M. (2022). The teaching and learning function of personal stories: Correlational and experimental evidence. Teaching of Psychology, Online first, 1-11. https://doi.org/10.1177/00986283221081008
Baddeley, A. (1988). But what the hell is it for?. In M. M. Gruneberg, P. E. Morris, & R. N. Sykes (Eds.), Practical aspects of memory: Current research and issues (pp. 3–18). Wiley.
Bluck, S., & Alea, N. (2011). Crafting the TALE: Construction of a measure to assess the functions of autobiographical remembering. Memory, 19(5), 470–486. https://doi.org/10.1080/
Brakke, K., & Houska, J. A. (2015). Telling stories: The art and science of storytelling as an instructional strategy. Society for the Teaching of Psychology. https://www.teachpsych.org/
Houska, J. A., Brakke, K., Kinslow, S. L., Zhao, X., Campbell, B., & Clinton, A ( (2015). The use of story among teachers of psychology. In K. Brakke, & J. A. Houska (Eds.), Telling stories: The art and science of storytelling as an instructional strategy (pp. 14–26). Society for the Teaching of Psychology. https://www.teachpsych.org/ebooks/tellingstories.html
Kromka, S. M., & Goodboy, A. K. (2019). Classroom storytelling: using instructor narratives to increase student recall, affect, and attention, Communication Education, 68(1), 20-43, https://doi.org/10.1080/03634523.2018.1529330
Landrum, R. E., Brakke, K., & McCarthy, M. A. (2019). The pedagogical power of
storytelling. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 5(3), 247–253.
Neisser, U. (1978). Memory: What are the important questions? In M. M. Gruneberg, P. Morris, & R. H. Sykes (Eds.), Practical aspects of memory (pp. 3–24). Academic Press.