Tips for Strengthening Your Course Narrative

A good story generally contains the following elements:

  • Protagonist: The hero (or anti-hero) of the narrative.
  • Central premise: The argument or thesis of the story.
  • Backstory: The context of the story.
  • Conflict: The challenges faced by the protagonist.
  • Narrative arc: The chronological movement of the story.

Should any of these be missing, readers will find the story lacking, though they may not be able to say why.

The same thing holds true for courses. A course is also a type of story. The narrative unfolds through readings, assignments, lectures, and other materials.

And as with a story, a course will seem inadequate should major narrative elements be missing. More often than not, the effects of badly designed courses and badly written stories are the same: students, and readers, feel that nothing is at stake. They are not compelled to continue studying

How do narrative elements translate to a course? Imperfectly but a rough translation is possible. In a course on global food systems, for example, the topic of global food systems could fit a protagonist-like role. The central premise would be the main argument you would like the course to make about global food systems. Backstory could be established through a history of global food systems, and conflict through arguments about globalization, private and governmental influence, etc. The narrative arc could evolve with the movement through concepts or ideas. Narrative tension could be heightened by situating controversial concepts in relation to one another. Students will be propelled through the course by their desire to discover, or formulate, resolutions to the conflicts and tensions in the topic they are studying.

Interpret course narrative elements as you wish. The important thing is that you organize your course in such a way that learners feel something is at stake, compelling them to follow the narrative. Happily, you can ensure your course has a robust and engaging narrative by asking the right questions.

What Is Your Course Story?

Ask this question first. A course that lacks a story is a course that lacks meaning. Story engenders a sense of progression. It invites exploration and engagement. It is dynamic and compelling, guiding the learner to greater understanding.

Once you’ve determined the course story, you must decide how to bring it to the forefront.

Begin by asking what you want learners to discover. Do you want them to gain greater understanding of the complexities surrounding a topic or issue? Would you like them to master certain skills? This will provide the basis for your narrative. Then decide how you will complicate that process of discovery. What controversial or provocative issues can you introduce? What challenges will foster more active learning?

You can use the weekly overview to highlight certain of these narrative elements. This is the most convenient place to pose the framing questions that will drive the narrative. Try to create a sense of narrative flow here, too – refer to what happened the week before, and allude to what future weeks will hold. The following example, taken from a public health course on obesity, illustrates how this can be done:

Obesity is one of the most pressing public health problems of our time. It affects populations throughout the United States. Over one-third of American adults are now considered obese and are suffering its attendant illnesses and effects on quality of life. Why is this happening? The constellations of factors that contribute to the obesity epidemic are complex in nature, and some are more apparent than others. In this course, we will work together to answer this very question.

This is the first paragraph of the week one overview. It is brief, yet it creates a sense of urgency by outlining the context and alluding to conflict and complexity. The overviews that follow build upon these elements, strengthening the narrative drive established during the first week.

Everyone loves a good story. By thinking about course narrative you are taking a big step toward making your content more meaningful and engaging.

The featured image for this post is an altered copy of The Battle at Lanka, Ramayana by Sahibdin – 1649 to 1653
Related posts: Why do it: Essential Questions for Learning

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