Arts & Humanities

USU Blanding Instructor Using Power of Stories to Connect Students and Course Material

By Marcus Jensen |

BLANDING, Utah — A Utah State University Blanding professor is using the power of stories to help connect her students to the material they are learning. Josi Russell, an associate professor of English in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, uses what she calls “story-based course design,” which allows her students the chance to personally engage with course content, rather than just listen to it.

“Story-based course design frames course material as a narrative in which the student participates in the course as a character,” Russell said. “In a story-based course, students step inside the material to take charge of the course instead of just taking it. They take on the role of explorers rather than observers.”

Throughout her teaching career, which began in 2001, Russell has had to adapt her method of teaching. Many of her courses are taught completely online, which adds to the challenge of engaging students. Russell believes that online education can be just as fulfilling and engaging as face-to-face learning, if it is developed deliberately and infused with creativity. She developed her teaching style to better adapt to online learners.

“I learned how quickly a learner can disengage when staring at a monitor. So I began to adapt,” Russell said. “Back in 2013, I began experimenting with ways to expand the borders of my classroom and found the new generation of learners was highly responsive to more engaging courses with more online content.”

Russell is a published author, having published more than 20 novels, as well as short stories. With this unique lens, Russell feels strongly that story-based teaching has strong potential for students in leveraging the power of stories to engage learners. By allowing students to immerse themselves in a course and become a part of the content, she has seen strong engagement from her online students.

“I felt that students would engage more fully if they could see themselves as part of a story — epic heroes or travelers on a quest — so I redesigned my classes to be immersive experiences that would help students step inside the content,” she said. I didn’t want them to simply take my course, I wanted them to take ownership of it.”

In her English 2220 course “Introduction to Fiction”, Russell has designed the class as a “Choose Your Own Adventure Story,” complete with wrong turns, foes to be vanquished and quests to be undertaken. As they navigate the story, students read seven novels and learning about different genres and features of fiction. Students face challenges where they can earn gold coins to be used on hard questions or special objects to help then through their quest. All their assignments are framed as conversations between themselves and various characters in the story. The students are cast as the heroes of the story.

“When the student is the hero of the story, the power dynamic of the classroom changes,” Russell said. “The professor becomes a guide and observer as students strike out on their own quest for knowledge, driven not by the threat of failure, but by the magical lure of discovery and adventure.”

In her English 1010 course, students engage in a “race around the world” journey, stepping into different cultures and communities. And in English 2010, Russell casts students as designers, architects and problem-solvers who create a library and fill it with resources for a particular community. After redesigning her courses, Russell has seen a spike in positive feedback and student engagement.

Russell found that the COVID pandemic further led to students fatiguing with content that was impersonal, flat or unengaging. She believes that her method can help students continue to engage while taking charge of their own learning. She recently shared this teaching method as part of her presentation at the 2023 Empowering Teaching Excellence Conference. In this presentation, Russell shared her own journey of recrafting her courses, then shared a six-step process for other educators to craft story-based courses, regardless of the subject matter they teach.

“This is a new way of teaching and a new way of learning,” Russell said. “I find things to improve every semester. My willingness to take risks and try something new seems to also free my students to innovate and experiment. I am proud of the fact that my classes ask students to step boldly into the adventure of their own education.”

Word of mouth has been strong for Russell’s courses, as she routinely has a wait-list for students who want to take her courses, with many classes having a waitlist of more than 50 students.

Offering residential campus housing and dining, Utah State University Blanding gives students the personalized attention and small class sizes of a small-town college with the resources of a large university, all while providing award-winning education. With degree options ranging from associate to doctorate degrees, plus technical education offerings in Business, Technical Trades and Health Professions, USU Blanding offers programs that help fuel local economies and empower individuals and their communities. Learn more at blanding.usu.edu.

Jodi Russell

WRITER

Marcus Jensen
News Coordinator
University Marketing and Communications
marcus.jensen@usu.edu

CONTACT

Josi Russell
Associate Professor of English
USU Blanding
josi.russell@usu.edu


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