Advancing University Biology Education with Narratives


Narrative Instruction; Biology Education; Higher Education; Conceptual Change; Reading Comprehension


Many concepts underlying fundamental processes in biology, such as understanding the stochastic nature of a molecule’s movement in the cytoplasm, are challenging to grasp from high school to graduate level. The reasons for these difficulties are often a combination of various factors, including the interdisciplinarity as well as the complexity of the concepts. Moreover, the way of knowledge transmission in educational settings relies to a significant extent on expository textbooks, which further complicates the learning process. 

In contrast, providing a narrative as a scaffold to embed scientific content in a personal or historical background might support the learning process as the knowledge pieces are provided in a familiar language and grounded in real-life experiences.

Despite these theoretical conjectures speaking in favor of narratives as an instructional tool in science education, the impact of educational narratives has been understudied, and the present evidence is in disagreement, especially in higher education. This doctoral work aimed to address this research gap by investigating the role of narratives in learning complex biological concepts in four empirical studies described below.

Research questions

The research questions of this doctoral project build upon the reviewed literature on storytelling in education. Considering the inconclusive findings, we aim to investigate whether there are consistent effects on students’ comprehension due to narrative instruction in a quantitative meta-analysis. Thereby, we hypothesize that storytelling interventions improve conceptual understanding. To gain further evidence for the positive effects of narratives on learning, we will conduct a study in biology classrooms at university to investigating the impact of storytelling on conceptual understanding. Since scholars frequently report changes in motivation, interest, or cognitive load as consequences of the intervention, we will additionally examine these variables. Lastly, we will inquire about the effect of storytelling efficacy on different concept difficulties to define the conditions in which storytelling is most effective.

State of the project

Understanding Randomness on a Molecular Level: A Diagnostic Tool 

To examine and compare an instruction’s effectiveness, valid and reliable assessment tools are inevitable. Hence, we developed and tested a concept inventory based on students’ most prevalent misconceptions associated with molecular stochasticity. We found that the Molecular Randomness Concept Inventory (MRCI) revealed valid and reliable estimations of students’ conceptual understanding. Furthermore, the performance analysis precisely indicated the extent and borders of students’ understanding and suggested a conceptual change model of the investigated concept. 

Tobler, S., Köhler, K., Sinha, T., Hafen, E., & Kapur, M. (2023). Understanding Randomness on a Molecular Level: A Diagnostic Tool. CBE life sciences education, 22(2), ar17. 

Impact of Narrative versus Expository Instruction in Science Education on Recall, Understanding, and Transfer: A Meta-Analysis 

Striving to synthesize evidence from previously published empirical studies that compare the effectiveness of narrative materials in contrast to expository instruction, we conducted a meta-analysis focusing on studies in science education at various levels of education. The results of the meta-analysis indicated that narratives can be beneficial for learning but that various factors concerning the narrative design or the way of implementation impact the effectiveness of the instruction.

Empirical Interventions

Teaching biology with narratives: Exploring the impact of affective and cognitive variables on undergraduate student learning

In an empirical classroom study, we then compared undergraduate students’ understanding of molecular stochasticity upon instruction of the concept either delivered in an expository text or embedded in the historical background of the concept’s discovery. Furthermore, we assessed various cognitive and affective learning mechanisms conjectured to be involved differently in these two conditions. We found a higher knowledge transfer performance upon interacting with the narrative instruction and showed that students with fewer prior STEM education benefited, especially regarding performance and the assessed learning mechanisms, contributing to closing the achievement gap. 

Telling stories as preparation for learning: A Bayesian analysis of transfer performance and structural equation modeling of learning mechanism 

Building on the results from the prior study, we added a thrid experimental condition in which students read the story as preparation for future learning from expository text. In a subsequent performance analysis, we found that the optimal instructional material strongly depends on students’ prior knowledge and that content-relevant stories prior to formal instructions might be a promising approach to enhance biology education

Relevant publications

Doctoral thesis

Tobler, S. (2023) Advancing University Biology Education with Narratives. ETH Zurich.

Journal papers

Tobler, S., Köhler, K., Sinha, T., Hafen, E., & Kapur, M. (2023). Understanding Randomness on a Molecular Level: A Diagnostic Tool. CBE life sciences education, 22(2), ar17. 

Conference papers 

Tobler, S., Köhler, K., Sinha, T., Hafen, E., & Kapur, M. (2022). Teaching Biology with Narratives: Insights in Students’ Understanding of Molecular Interactions. EARLI SIG 6 & 7 Conference 2022. Zollikofen, Switzerland. 

Tobler, S., Sinha, T., Koehler, K., Hafen, E., & Kapur, M. (2022). The Impact of Prior Knowledge in Narrative-Based Learning on Understanding Biological Concepts in Higher Education. Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society, 44. 

Tobler, S., Sinha, T., Köhler, K., Hafen, E., & Kapur, M. (2022). Effects of narratives on undergraduate student understanding of fundamental concepts in biology. Proceedings of the 16th International Conference of the Learning Sciences (ICLS 2022). Hiroshima, Japan. 

Conference posters 

Tobler, S., Sinha, T., Köhler, K., Hafen, E., & Kapur, M. (2022). Narratives and their effect on students’ understanding of biology. JDPLS Welcome Event, Lausanne, Switzerland. 

Tobler, S., Hafen, E., Köhler, K., Sinha, T., & Kapur, M. (2021). Educational storytelling in university biology classrooms. Proceedings of the 6th Annual Learning Sciences Graduate Student Conference (LSGSC 2021). 


Dr. Samuel Tobler

Dr. Tanmay Sinha

Dr. Katja Köhler

Prof. Dr. Ernst Hafen

Prof. Dr. Manu Kapur