Pilot Study 1: The Power of Stories

Introduction: Why Study The Power of Stories?

Stories and the Brain


Does reading about someone or something activate the same brain regions related to experiencing that thing in real life? Several psychologists and neuroscientists interested in narrative have asked this very question. Indeed, they find that reading a narrative allows one to simulate the experience they are reading about, as if they are really undergoing it in real life. When reading about someone or something, the process of visualization and imagination aids in simulation of an experience or what some authors call the ‘experience of embodied cognition’ (Mar and Oatley, 2008) (Stanford and Emmott, 2012). 

When we visualize something, we undergo a ‘mental simulation’ which consists of physically experiencing the object or event we are reading about. Stories are therefore exceptionally powerful in building new neural pathways and shaping understanding and behavior in a way that normal pedagogy cannot. 

Moreover, stories that reflect a child's identity have been qualitatively linked to improved performance. The research carried out on identity stories, and the brain of someone reading a story gives us the opportunity to see whether a story linked to identity could improve a child's performance in a particular subject. 

Pilot Study 1: The Power of Stories

Study methodology: 

This study was conducted with two 4th grade girl-only clusters at Dhahran Ahlyyah School, a private school in Saudi Arabia in a second semester math class. The ages ranged between 9 and 10 and there was a total of 45 participants (Class A with 24 students, Class B with 21). 

Class A and Class B had similar performance baseline divided between weak, medium and advanced according to school records of student assessments from the first semester. Class A was randomly selected to be the study group; Class B was the control group. 

The study's objective was to find out whether reading the children a story about their heritage and identity would improve their performance in math. A particular interest in our analysis was regarding to the weakest students in the classroom. The school identified 10 students from Class A, and 8 students from Class B as below the red line. 

The Study:

Students in Class A and Class B were first given a pre-test with 2 mathematical word problems. Math problem 1 required 3 steps to complete, (each step worth 1 grade point); math problem 2 required 2 steps to complete (each step worth 1 grade point). The total score for the pre-test was out of 5 grade points. 

On a separate day, students in Class A (Study group) were given story time, where they heard the story of an Arab queen Zubaydah bint Jafa'r from the 8th century who conducted one of the most complex hydro engineering projects in her time, saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of pilgrims going to Mecca. 

Students in Class B (Control group) did not listen to a story, they only had a pre-test and a post-test. In the post-test students had 3 questions to answer. The first was a more complicated word problem with 3 steps, the second, and third-word problems were similar to the pre-test. Both had 2 steps (each step worth 1 grade point). The total score was out of 7 grade points. 

Summary of preliminary results: 

Limitation of the study: 

The first limitation of the study is the small sample size of 24 in the Study group and 21 in the Control group. The second limitation relates to the post-test for Class A (Study group). These students were given the exam during their short 20 minute recess which as opposed to 40 minutes, which is the time they had to complete the pre-test.

They will also have been rushing to finish in time for recess. This means that they could have performed even better had they received the exam during a normal period. Third, the story only tests students' change of performance immediately after hearing the story, it does not test the long-term impact. Fourth, the pre-test had only 2 questions while the post-test had 3 questions. 


Overall, when comparing the post-test results from the Control group and the Study group we see that the story intervention shows a 21% difference between Class A and Class B. Considering Class A had a greater number of low performing students than Class B, this difference in performance is very important. 

When comparing the in group change in performance for the study group, the most significant difference occurs in the weakest performing students with a 23% jump from pre-test to post-test. 

The improvements seen after just one story reveal the potential in the power of stories in an educational setting. In particular, the dramatic improvements of the weakest students are worthy of highlighting and exploring further. 

If stories do have an impact on student performance, what are we missing by not including them in the curriculum? And what might we gain if we do then incorporate them on a regular basis?