Helping Students Effectively Interact with New Knowledge: Narrative Stories

By Scott Sterling

Key in the Marzano Framework’s efforts toward rigor is the concept that students not only need to be taught new knowledge, but how to interact with it. How can they use it? Why is this important? How do we expand on these new ideas? These are all questions that students should be able to answer at the end of a lesson or unit.

Interacting with new knowledge in a narrative way can be a valuable bridge for students. Stories tend to personalize information, which helps move it to episodic memory from short-term memory. It gives context to new data.

Leveraging narrative in the classroom can take many forms. Here are some strategies to consider.


Role-play can take place in any subject area for nearly any topic, not just language arts or history. For example, in a biology unit about rainforests, students can take the role of an explorer in the Amazon, researching information as they go. The information they learn will be tied to the experiences they have in class. All they will have to do is remember that time where they encountered the alligator in the river and they will remember a lot more about reptilian biology.

Tying information to personal experiences

Narratives do not necessarily have to be fiction. Episodic memory is also triggered by events that happen in real life, even if they do not necessarily happen to you.

This is one of the reasons why teachers shouldn’t be afraid to tell students about their own experiences. Telling the story of measuring a room for new tile can help students remember how to compute the area of a rectangle (especially if it’s funny).

Of course, asking students to tell their own stories is more powerful. Give them enough preliminary information to understand the idea, and then ask for their own stories. For example, parabolas make a lot more sense to basketball players once they realize that is every shot toward the basket.

Completely fictionalized accounts

Authors (usually) have to know a lot about a subject before they can write about it. After they are done with their manuscript, they tend not to forget the little things. The same can be applied in school.

When I was in middle school, my teachers constructed a huge interdisciplinary project having to do with the writing of a science fiction story. The writing was covered in language arts, of course. But the science class actually covered things like interplanetary dynamics during the same time so we had the background necessary to write. History taught about previous scientific endeavors. Math helped us work through the nuts and bolts required for our stories (travel times, gravitational pulls, etc.).

Biography projects

The study of biographies is often left to the language arts teachers, but there have been prominent minds in every discipline. Learning about their lives can help students tie their accomplishments to the information they need to move forward in the curriculum. Learn about Sir Isaac Newton and you end up learning a lot about gravity. The same goes for Pythagoras and math.

It’s even better if students construct their own biographies rather than rely on someone else’s work. When they are the ones connecting the dots, those dots move into episodic memory much more efficiently than just reading about someone famous.