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‘Connecting through Voice’ Project: learning through storytelling


Connecting through Voice


The ‘Connecting through voice’ Project is a 40000EUR funded ‘Building New Blocks’ project at the Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR).

The project has three strong interrelated aims.

  1. to collect lived experiences of underrepresented students by giving these students a voice by telling their story. This offers HE institutions information about what really matters to the students as defined by them. This places the students’ lived experiences in the center and ensures that teachers understand the lifeworlds of their students better, which results in a more efficient and personal student-centered approach.
  2. to provide educators with the skills related to narrative competencies entailing how to systematically adopt others’ points of view, how to identify the meaning of individuals’ words and how to enter an authentic relation with a teller. This approach offers teachers personal development opportunities and at the same time ensures better quality work and opens up opportunities for student-centered (education) innovation initiatives (by understanding what really matters to students). This also entails a marketing aim for the institution. The added value of student VOICES for marketing a higher institution to future generations is that the concept is value-driven and ethical and encourages inclusion.
  3. to offer an additional marketing aim at the institutional level which is an intrinsically co-created value-driven student-centered approach that focuses on the learning of teachers taking place through engaging in dialogue about student stories. At the same time its ethical aim reaches far beyond this direct relationship between the teacher and the student by incorporating holistic well-being issues the HE institution to forthcoming generations of students.

Rationale: The pedagogically embedded story-based learning tool is oriented towards a pluralist interpretation and meaning-making of stories through dialogue. Telling and listening to stories is the starting point and opens the metaphorical gateway to a new world of higher education in which lifelong learning together and mutual learning are central. Here, the interpretive capacities are foregrounded as central, that in turn draw on and deepen skills around listening, communicating and contextualizing what we call narrative knowledge. This narrative knowledge offers students and university staff the opportunity to develop the skill of narrative reasoning, and to learn through the structure of (their) stories. The key learning process through which this is fostered is reflective learning, based on dialogue around the interpretation of stories


The project was headed by Dr Sonja Wendel (Assistant Professor in the School of Economics) at Erasmus University Rotterdam along with her colleague and associate researcher Dr Iris Casteren van Cattenburch. Dr Teti Dragas and Dr Laura Mazzoli Smith (Durham University) were brought into the project as co-researchers and as consultants. Teti was primarily focused on the first part of the project which invovled buidling, delivering and facilitating the Digital storytelling course for the self-selecting Erasmus students and in guiding Sonja and Iris in their own developing understanding of Digital Storytelling and its facilitation. Laura was leading the second part of the project which was the teachers workshop, supporting them to understand narrative-based work and providing them with a narrative-based framework  Caring Stories from which to understand and interpret stories. The project ran across 2022 and the final evaluation is due to be completed in early 2023.

Read more about the project and the project team in the link below.

Read more about the project on EUR pages


Connecting through Voice Project: Digital Storytelling Workshop for Students

The Connecting through Voice Project ran in 2022. The first part was to develop and run the Digital Storytelling Workshop which was placed on the Erasmus VLE (CANVAS) and ran online with a cohort of 12 students from a range of disciplines and courses (UG and PG) who had self-selected following a call across the institution. Students were home and internationals from various nations which included: The Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Russia, Greece, Slovakia, Morrocco, Columbia, Bulgaria and China.

Dr Teti Dragas was the lead facilitator and developed the content, course structure and lead the course. Dr Sonja Wendel and Dr Iris Casteren Van Cattenburch were supported to also build a story in order to enable them to better understand the process from the inside, and this was part of the facilitator training. Dr Laura Mazzoli Smith contributed in the story circles and in providing feedback on student stories as they moved through the process.

The Canvas course included a suite of asynchronous materials and tasks and some key synchronous group workshops that ran across four weeks. Students were guided through the process of conceptualising and creating a digital story that focused on a transformational experience linked to their experiences at university.

We know from educational research that it’s important students are able to reflect on their own thresholds of transformation. This can enable students to:

  • build resilience against future challenges, by identifying how they overcame a barrier in the past
  • be able to define their particular interests within the wider subject of education, which might help with planning for things like dissertation topics
  • identify longer-term goals, such as career aims, by recognising what aspects of a subject speak most meaningfully to them or what new skills the subject has given them

Evaluation of Digital Storytelling Course

Students were initially engaged because of their interest in stories, how to better structure and think through stories, how to voice and share their experiences and how to use the digital side of storytelling. An opening session on objects elicited thoughtful and rich stories from the students which led to a whole array of processes coming to the fore; symbolizing, community, fun, friendship, balance, hopes, ambitions, change, transformation, joy, travel, futures, life course, childhood, family, holidays, dreams, desires, guide, reflection, soul, the emptiness and the fullness of life. In the Story Circle and reflective processes, the students were able to talk with insight and depth about aspects of their lives – memories, relations, objects – that had impacted on their learning journeys. The stories were all diverse but also drew on some core elements that came to be central features of the stories in the showcase – often journeys of transformation or over-coming adversity, with a strong message being shared. The students worked well together, supporting each other and taking on a role of critical friends to others through their stories, which was a disposition that it could be said was born both of generosity and pride in their own achievements – but also with a depth of honesty and openness about struggles that was very moving.

Students were highly engaged in with the process, spending a lot time developing their stories and completing them outside of the workshops, which was a testament to their commitment and engagement with the sessions. Watching the final stories in the showcase there was an impressive array of techniques used (illustration, video, photo) and story forms and content shared. Key themes in addition to over-coming challenge and transformation was that of identity as the Erasmus students engaged with the implications of their multiple identities and countries of origin/family. In terms of reflective learning there was a strong sense of how much the students had worked well with the structures and parameters of the digital storytelling process to deepen their own experiential and personal understanding of inclusion, diversity and under-representation at University.


Connecting through Voice: Educators Workshop


The educators workshop ran in two 3 hour sessions, one in person and the other online and it was led by Dr Laura Mazzoli Smith and supported by Dr Teti Dragas. There were a total of 9 academic staff who joined from across the institution.

Day one focused on providing staff with a framework and theoretical foundation for narrative-based learning from and its value to higher education and the pedagogic context. Day two drew on the digtial storytelling project student stories and used these as a means to exemplify the theory, and to show how working with narratives and their interpretation would work in practice.

Evaluation and Feedback

The workshop was highly rated, slightly below the student evaluation. This may have to do with the less interactive character of the teacher workshop – but it was felt that there was less time to work on group assignments or other dialogues, due to having a great deal information to share in a relatively short period of time. The teachers all see the potential of storytelling in education, and still want to learn how to embed storytelling in their courses. To this end, we will be creating an e-learning platform in the third phase of this project to support this learning.

As one of the eductors’ noted in their feedback: ‘In order to incorporate digital storytelling into education, students need very good guidance from teachers who have been trained in this. I think that can be a challenge.’ When asked whether educators would want to attend a Digital Storytelling in HE training course they all said yes. We hope to be able to give the digital storytelling course in the future for facilitators. This is one of the follow-up ideas for Connecting through Voices.

Narrative-based Learning: Inspirational Handbook for HE Educators 2023

This Inspirational Handbook for HE educators is a mix between theory and practice and gives more detail for those who are thinking about using Narrative-based methods in Higher Education pedagogic contexts. It has been written by the ‘Connecting through Voice’ project team and reports on insights and work developed on this project.

Feedback on ‘Connecting Through Voices Project’

The following is a range of qualitative feedback gained from staff and students involved in this project. It has been gathered from written reflections on learning, project evaluation forms and unsolicited feedback.

It was amazing to see the emotional and inspiring stories students created. I am now thinking about how storytelling can be embedded in a course.

Academic Staff/ Educator at Erasmsus University Rotterdam