Embedding narratives in lectures

Dr Andy Field, who is a Professor of Quantitative Methods and the recipient of numerous teaching awards at Sussex, talks in this case study about how he uses narratives to make his lectures engaging.

Dr. Andy Field in fancy dress

What I did 

I am the Methods lead within the School of Psychology and part of that role is overseeing all of the teaching related to Psychological Methods and Statistics. Statistics within the context of Psychology can be a dry subject, so in my lectures, I often use narratives in which I feature as character who uses data and statistics to solve a problem. For example, there is an alien invasion and we explore research scenarios around testing whether sniffer dogs are able to differentiate humans from shapeshifting aliens and help us to save the planet from imminent attack. Within these narratives, I lean into the silliness by coming in fancy dress. In the aforementioned lecture, I dress as an astronaut, I have also been a wizard helping a dragon to thwart a knight trying to kill dragons based on some dubious data he’s seen, I’ve been an undead statistician ending a feud between zombies and werewolves, and I’ve helped Santa with Christmas deliveries  

Why I did it 

I believe that lectures are a terrible format for learning, especially considering that the average attention span is around 7 minutes. Even with advances in technology, lectures are largely passive experiences. The idea that you can teach in large groups over a long period of time is a fairly wild idea. I always strive, therefore, to convey a sense of enthusiasm to show students that what they are leaning is doable, manageable and interesting.    


The main challenge is that creating these stories and characters is a colossal amount of work, which is why I do not do it for every lecture. Another thing to consider is that fantasy situations are fun, but at some point, students have to start dealing with real world. So, although students recreate the analyses in the lecture for themselves in their smaller practical classes, there will be a transfer task where they will get their hands dirty with real-world data. 

Student impact 

I think that if students come out of a one-hour lecture thinking that it was not boring, feeling empowered to tackle the topic in their practical class, and feel invested in learning, then I have done my job. I see myself as an enthusiastic and kind guide who inspires students and shows them that what they are studying is achievable and worth doing. 

Top Tips: 

  1. You do not need to create fantasy narratives like I do. Any scenario that poses a problem, and that shows students how to use statistics (or whatever you are teaching) to solve the problem, would work. You can bring narratives to life without necessarily having to dress up like an alien.  
  1. Interaction should not get in the way of the narrative thread of the lecture. If using interactive technology such as polling, think about whether it will enhance or disrupt the narrative. Interactive technology needs to add something useful rather than be a contrivance.  
  1. Creating narratives is very time consuming, so think about whether that time investment is worth the payoff for your teaching. 
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