Improving Conceptual Understanding in Biology through Storytelling


Storytelling, Biology, Conceptual Change, Narratives, Higher Education


Over the last decades, several scholars examined the understanding of biological topics. Consistently, they reported that some theories are hard to grasp for students at any stage of their educational careers (Bishop & Anderson, 1990; Garvin-Doxas & Klymkowsky, 2008). Only recently, a team of researchers showed that also students at ETH do not comprehend various fundamental biological concepts. As underlying reasons, they suggested isolated teaching, the rule-based nature of natural science education, and the teleological mindsets of students as leading causes for the retention of misconceptions (Champagne Queloz et al., 2016).

Teleological thinking thereby refers to a way of sense-making in which a person assumes a purpose in a random process. Following this mode of argumentation, a plant, for example, either adapts itself or goes extinct upon climate change, even though, in reality, random processes lead to individual differences in the population, and the randomly best-adapted individuals have the highest chance of survival.

While numerous teaching approaches aim to tackle misconceptions, research findings also indicate that the deployed instructional methods often fail to resolve misconceptions or teleological beliefs (Champagne Queloz et al., 2016; Fiedler et al., 2017).

A yet only sparsely explored field of instructional methods is the use of storytelling. While the available literature suggests a slightly positive effect of narratives on understanding, the results from studies conducted at the university level unveil fewer insights (Dai et al., 2021; M. Wolfe & Mienko, 2007).

Nevertheless, and independent of the level of education, learning improves upon integrating similar ideas in various disciplines, including prior knowledge and social environment (Figure 1) (Brown et al., 1989). Although instructional methods in higher education neglect these aspects of knowledge acquisition, they are essential for conceptual understanding and change. Narratives as a pedagogical tool combine scientific ideas with stories, thereby providing a social context and connecting to or competing with personal experiences (Arya & Maul, 2012; Posner et al., 1982). This intrinsic scaffold could also helps students seeing relationships between assumedly diverse topics in different disciplines.

The picture shows a woman who interacts with different aspects of learning, involving peer discussions, activation of prior knowledge, and integrating knowledge elements from various lectures in mathematics, chemistry, and biology.

Figure 1. Learning in context following Brown and colleagues (1989).

In conclusion, theoretical and empirical research propose various mechanisms for how stories could promote comprehension and counteract the described causes limiting conceptual change.

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

Having conducted two pilot studies with over 140 undergraduate students in biology classes at ETH Zurich, we gained insights into optimizing the various materials and the effects of narratives on understanding. Now, in the spring semester of 2022, we are using the optimized materials in biology university classrooms to investigate the impact of a historical narrative to convey the concept of stochasticity in biological systems.


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.

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

Tobler, S., Hafen, E., Köhler, K., Sinha, T., & Kapur, M. (2021). Educational storytelling in university biology classrooms. LSGS 2021 Proceedings, 81–82.

To go further

If you are interested in Biology Education, you can also take a look at this project:

Diagnosing and Promoting the Understanding of Interdisciplinary Concepts in Life Science Education (link)


Arya, D. J., & Maul, A. (2012). The role of the scientific discovery narrative in middle school science education: An experimental study. In Journal of Educational Psychology (Vol. 104, Issue 4, pp. 1022–1032). American Psychological Association.

Bishop, B. A., & Anderson, C. W. (1990). Student conceptions of natural selection and its role in evolution. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 27(5), 415–427.

Brown, J. S., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning. Educational Researcher, 18(1), 32–42.

Champagne Queloz, A., Klymkowsky, M. W., Stern, E., Hafen, E., & Köhler, K. (2016). Debunking Key and Lock Biology: Exploring the prevalence and persistence of students’ misconceptions on the nature and flexibility of molecular interactions. Matters Select.

Dai, P., Williams, C. T., Witucki, A. M., & Rudge, D. W. (2021). Rosalind Franklin and the Discovery of the Structure of DNA. Science & Education, 30(3), 659–692.

Fiedler, D., Tröbst, S., & Harms, U. (2017). University Students’ Conceptual Knowledge of Randomness and Probability in the Contexts of Evolution and Mathematics. CBE Life Sciences Education, 16(2), ar38.

Garvin-Doxas, K., & Klymkowsky, M. W. (2008). Understanding randomness and its impact on student learning: lessons learned from building the Biology Concept Inventory (BCI). CBE Life Sciences Education, 7(2), 227–233.

Posner, G. J., Strike, K. A., Hewson, P. W., & Gertzog, W. A. (1982). Accommodation of a scientific conception: Toward a theory of conceptual change. Science Education, 66(2), 211–227.

Wolfe, M., & Mienko, J. (2007). Learning and memory of factual content from narrative and expository text. The British Journal of Educational Psychology, 77, 541–564.

Samuel Tobler

Dr. Tanmay Sinha

Dr. Katja Köhler

Prof. Dr. Ernst Hafen

Prof. Dr. Manu Kapur