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So, let me tell you a story! The functions of personal stories in in-person and online classes

02 Sep 2020 5:37 PM | Anonymous

By: Nicole Alea, Ph.D., University of California, Santa Barbara

There is a story that I share in my research methods class to teach students about the ordinal measurement scale. The story goes something like this:

“So, my husband has been a competitive swimmer since he was young. He now swims with the Masters, which means he’s over 40. He’s still a really, really good swimmer! I remember this one race that he used to do every year around a small island called Gasparee off the coast of Trinidad where we used to live. I was on the beach waiting with our son for him to come out of the water. I remember my husband coming out of the water looking really proud, with a big smile on his face, as if he had just won the entire race. He knew that he did well, and it turned out that he came in 5th place overall, which was really great! So, it was hard when I had to tell him that although he was 5th overall, which is great, he was also about 5 minutes behind the first four finishers. Five minutes is a long time in swimming. I made him feel better by letting him know that the first four finishers were all in their twenties and came in from the race within mere seconds of one another. So, he was first in his age group!”

As a class, we will then go on to discuss how the placement of the swimmers is rank ordered, so that someone is first, second, etc., but that the intervals between the ranks or the race finishers are not equal. My husband was somewhat far behind those first four finishers, thus an ordinal scale.

I could, of course, teach this concept with a simple definition of ordinal scale, a generic example, or I could even make up a story, but I always share this personal story with my students. I am not alone in my affinity for sharing personal stories in the classroom. A survey of 100 psychology instructors found that 91% reported using stories in classes, and that most of these stories were about personal life experiences (Housaka, Brakke, Kinslow, Zhao, Campbell, & Clinton, 2015). Why are we doing this as instructors, sharing the personal experiences of our life with students?

We know why people do this in everyday life, outside of the classroom. There is a pretty clear consensus that people reflect on and share experiences about their personal past for self, social, and directive reasons, or what are called the functions of autobiographical memory (Bluck & Alea, 2011). Reflecting on personal experiences allows us to better understand who we are and how we have changed or remained the same over time (self function; e.g., Bluck, Alea, & Demiray, 2009). Personal stories are shared to initiate and develop relationships, to elicit empathy from or provide empathy to others, and to help teach or inform someone (social function; Alea & Bluck, 2003). Reflecting on personal experiences also helps people to make current decisions and to guide future behaviors (direction function; e.g., Pillemer, 2003). Do these everyday functions of personal stories translate to a classroom setting?

The importance of stories as a pedagogical tool has not gone unnoticed (e.g., Brakke & Houska, 2015), and empirical support about their functions is accumulating. Miller and Wozniak (2015), for example, found that students in an introductory psychology course were more likely to get exam questions correct when the content of a question had been taught using a story versus a non-story format (e.g., definitions). This performance difference was particularly salient for personal stories, thus demonstrating the utility of personal stories in serving a teaching and learning function. We found similar results in my research methods course (Alea & Osfeld, 2020). Students self-reported that personal stories, like the one that I shared above, helped them to not only better understand course material, but also served socioemotional functions. Students reported that the personal stories were a source of enjoyment in the learning process and helped to create a positive classroom atmosphere.

It also seems that personal stories do not have to be shared by an instructor, or even in person, to be functional. In Spring 2020, I had to quickly transition my usual in-person Adult Development and Aging course into an online course. As part of the course requirements, students made weekly posts in an online discussion forum to specific prompts. The initial purpose of the forum was to help students learn the course material via application (for example: linking age-related changes in attention to driving regulations for older adults). However, after reading the posts each week, it became clear that these forums were doing something more.

Students were spontaneously sharing personal stories in the online discussion forums and their stories seemed to be serving particular functions for themselves and other students. For example, when covering diversity and aging, one student shared the following personal story:

“I wanted to share a story myself to see if anyone else can relate as well! I feel like there is a huge lack of resources for our minority groups, especially for those who are elderly. My grandmother always needs my siblings or I to go with her to any doctor's appointment/checkups because most of the physicians are white and do not speak her native language thus a translator is needed. The language barrier is something that I don't hear talked about often, and I feel that this is something that this generation can fix for the future.”

The student’s story did an excellent job of demonstrating the minority experience of aging. She taught other students, and me, something via her story. It will probably become a vicarious story (Thomsen & Pillemer, 2017) that I use to teach students in the future. The student was also clearly asking if others could relate or empathize with her situation. It turns out that they did. Another student’s response to the post clearly served an empathic function. The student posted:

“Thank you for sharing this story about your grandmother. It is crazy to think that on top of all of this added stress regarding COVID, the most vulnerable populations like the elderly are also having to worry about language and cultural barriers (things I so easily take for a granted as a white & English speaker). Many hospitals/clinics are currently not allowing visitors, so I can't even imagine what it must feel like for someone in your grandmother's position.”

These two excerpts are only anecdotal evidence, but the snippets demonstrate the potential of personal stories as a pedagogical tool that can serve multiple functions. Personal stories in the classroom or in a remote learning environment, shared by the teacher or by peers, whether it is my story or someone else’s story, do more than teach and inform. Personal stories seem to function to make learning more enjoyable, create a positive classroom atmosphere, and have the potential to foster empathy among our students. With the incredible challenges our students are currently facing with the pandemic, racial injustices, and natural disasters, I encourage all of us to humanize our courses by infusing them with personal stories that have the capacity to serve self, social, and directive functions.


Alea, N., & Bluck, S. (2003). Why are you telling me that? A conceptual model of the social function of autobiographical memory. Memory11, 165-178.

Alea, N., & Osfeld, M. J. (2020).  Teach me your story: the function of autobiographical stories as a pedagogical tool. Poster presented at the APS Virtual Poster Showcase (June 2020 – September 2020).

Bluck, S., & Alea, N. (2008). Remembering being me: The self-continuity function of autobiographical memory in younger and older adults. In F. Sani (Ed.) Self-continuity: Individual and collective perspectives (pp. 55-70). New York: Psychology Press.

Bluck, S., & Alea, N. (2011). Crafting the TALE: Construction of a measure to assess the functions of autobiographical remembering. Memory, 19, 470-486.

Brakke, K., & Houska, J. A. (2015). Telling stories: The art and science of storytelling as an instructional strategy. Retrieved from the Society for the Teaching of Psychology web site:

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. Retrieved from the Society for the Teaching of Psychology web site:

Landrum, R. E., Brakke, K., & McCarthy, M. A. (2019). The pedagogical power of storytelling. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 5, 247–253.

Miller, R. L., & Wozniak, W. J. (2015). Weaving yarns into good psychological science education. In K. Brakke & J. A. Houska (Eds.). Telling stories: The art and science of storytelling as an instructional strategy. Retrieved from the Society for the Teaching of Psychology web site:

Pillemer, D. (2003). Directive functions of autobiographical memory: The guiding power of the specific episode. Memory, 11, 193-202.

Thomsen, D. K., & Pillemer, D. B. (2017). I know my story and I know your story: Developing a conceptual framework for vicarious life stories. Journal of Personality, 85, 464-480.

Dr. Nicole Alea (Albada) is an Assistant Teaching Professor in Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of California Santa Barbara. She teaches undergraduate courses on research methods, statistics, and a course on adult development and aging. She is the director of the TALE - Thinking About Life Experiences - Lab, and has been conducting research on the functions and content of autobiographical memory in everyday life across adulthood and cultures for 20 years. Her research interests have recently broadened to focus on understanding the functions of personal stories as a pedagogical tool. 

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