Meaning-making through storytelling – the ways in which students use storytelling and reflection to reauthor the academic journey (part 2)

Discussion with laptop (CREDIT: Photo by Headway on Unsplash)
Aiden Choles

Aiden Choles is a qualified narrative therapist who runs The Narrative Lab (TNL), based in South Africa. Established in 2007, TNL is an organisational development and applied research firm that blends narrative approaches, complexity thinking and facilitation techniques. TNL employs a team of psychologists, consulting researchers and operational staff.

This blog post follows on from a previous entry that discussed how a Participatory Narrative Inquiry (PNI) methodology was used in the evaluation of the Sasol Inzalo Foundation's (SaIF) bursary programme in South Africa, where students were encouraged to record their experiences using self-quantified narratives. The benefits that students experienced as a result of contributing these self-quantified narratives will be explored in this post.

The initial design of the evaluation prioritised the need to provide SaIF and StudieTrust (the bursary administrator) with insights regarding the students' transitions and adaptations to academic life, in order to continuously inform the support programme. While it was generally acknowledged that the storytelling methodology would allow students to reflect on their experiences, the extent of the benefits and the resultant influence in how students' reauthored their journey was not fully anticipated.

From the beginning

The first narrative collection in 2010 was conducted in a workshop context where students could voluntarily answer the story prompt and complete the storynaire (story-based questionnaire) on their computers. The research team was unsure how receptive students would be to the process of sharing their stories of academic life thus far. Stillness filled the room as they engaged deeply in the task, broken only by the din of dozens of computer keyboards being tapped as the stories were entered.

Analysis highlighted how the stories were often lengthy, intensely personal, journal-like narratives of the experiences they had encountered thus far. The students' stories went beyond simply recounting events and explaining what had happened to them, by also incorporating levels of self-reflection as they questioned the meaning of the experiences. The stories were, to some degree, primarily written to themselves. The students also posed questions to themselves within their stories and attempts were made at answering the questions, thus constructing a sense of coherence in their experiences.

In the process of writing their stories, the students were engaging in a sensemaking activity. They were working with their interpretations of what they were experiencing in the first year experience of being a university student.


The very act of students reflecting on their experiences and writing these experiences in story form seemed to promote a 'reauthoring dynamic' where students 'edited' their own stories of adaptation. In turn this influenced how they activated the resources they had at their disposal to help maintain their performance and persistence.

Two forms of resources were activated as a result of the reflections.

Firstly, internal emotional and cognitive resources were identified and amplified by the students. The style of self-talk they utilised in their stories was motivational in nature. Students reminded themselves of their capabilities (talent, possibility, drive, tenacity, etc.) and motivations (significant family member encouragements, desires to escape poverty, etc). The narrative flow of the stories often meandered towards a delta where options for next steps were clearly conceptualised, assessed, and chosen. With renewed motivation, the students spoke of how they would address academic, social, and psychological challenges differently.

Secondly, an awareness of the availability of external resources was increased in the minds of the students – an awareness that often evolved into problem solving. The narrative analysis often revealed how a student experiences 'resource blindness' in the face of mounting academic pressure. External resources, readily made available by funders and universities, were somehow forgotten about in the desperation of the situation. For example, the activation of external resources in the retelling of their experiences meant that some students remembered an on-campus counselling centre was available to them, and would talk through the process (in the story) of how they would go about seeking assistance from a counsellor and their expectations thereof.

Narrative formation

While the story prompts aimed to elicit raw, experience-based narratives from the students they almost always transitioned into providing a broader, more encompassing narrative that articulated their unfolding 'life experience' – a metanarrative of self-identity and student experience. This dynamic emulated the metanarrative formation process encountered in various PNI projects run by The Narrative Lab, where stories of 'what happen to me' develop over time into metanarratives, depending on the significance and meaning ascribed to those experiences.

Interestingly, the dominant negative metanarratives introduce a 'shadow' that obscures the alternative stories of identity and possibility. Narrative activation is the process where students become aware of the resources at their disposal to address current challenges, while at the same time challenging the identity politics of dominant stories.

Methodological and theoretical underpinnings

The reauthoring dynamics discussed above have their roots in some of the methodological elements and theoretical underpinnings of storytelling.

Cynthia Kurtz wrote: 'Stories and answers to questions about them reinforce each other and provide a richer base of meaning than either can alone... If you listen to anyone tell a story in person, they will almost always surround it with some metadata about why they are telling the story'. Asking questions about stories is not anything new or unnatural; it's only what people have always done. Including questions about the story in our story survey is designed to mimic this natural process.

Interestingly, the SaIF students would answer these questions (and only have visibility of them) after they had typed out their story in the storynaire. However, the first question they would see is a request to provide a title to their story. The very act of naming personal experiences is a sensemaking activity, and is therefore likely to have prompted some of the reauthoring dynamics we noticed in the stories. Chances are high that the questions about the story answered after the storytelling prompted further reflection (but this was not recorded for evaluation purposes).

Research as therapeutic: Narrative Therapy influences

When a person encounters challenging life circumstances, their perspective on life can be thwarted by the problem story, thereby limiting their ability to see the bigger picture and consider alternative ways of being – a narrative therapy-inspired position is one that tries to overcomes this. As Dr Chené Swart (2013, p.10) point outs, 'the alternative narrative is always present, patiently waiting to be seen, to be invited back more fully into the preferred way of living and being.'

The context of aiding self-reflection in university students is about awakening the narrative ability inherent in us, whether it comes naturally or not. The option of asking students to write their narratives, in the context of a developmental research programme, especially from the beginning of their academic journey, seems to assist in this therapeutic process.

We witnessed how the opportune contribution of self-narrative material at regular times during an academic year (a couple of months after the beginning and just before the final exams) seems to have allowed students the benefit of gaining a better perspective of their challenges.

Based in part on the reauthoring dynamics discussed above, interactive narrative-based workshops with the students were facilitated in order to amplify the possibilities associated with further reflection on their student storylines. A series of exercises were used that allowed them to articulate their student storyline, reflect further on the dominant and alternative narratives at play in their experiences, and finally to consider the influence of these narratives on their performance during the academic year.


The question of how best to support students through various academic transitions receives a lot of attention, especially in the South African context, resulting in an array of academic and psychosocial mechanisms. Sadly, the utilisation of these options can be undermined by 'resource blindness' that students who are under pressure often experience. The positive benefits of working narratively with students should excite funders and administrators, where evaluation and support needs can be addressed mutually, given the ease with which narrative activation can occur. The possibilities associated with narrative activation are exciting and will be explored in the next installment of this blog series.

Read the previous post from Aiden