Teaching Strategies

Using Storyboards in the Classroom

Here’s how to turn these visual representations of film sequences into a valuable teaching tool across content and grades.

December 22, 2023
smolaw11 / iStock

Storyboards, a fundamental tool for filmmakers, are universally adaptable to any grade and content. With this flexible strategy, teachers can help students organize ideas, break down concepts, and visualize their learning.

A storyboard is a visual representation of any action or sequence. Filmmakers use storyboards to visualize each shot of a movie. Each box or frame captures one beat (moment) of the film and includes a sketch of what’s visually happening as well as notes on the dialogue, effects, or other key features.

Storyboards, in general, expand and contract based on the length or size of the task they aim to capture. Just as a 90-minute movie will have a much longer, more complex storyboard than a five-minute short, storyboards for the classroom can be as short or as long as your task demands: Four to eight squares on one page can summarize a concept or outline an idea, while a more complex task may require dozens of squares over several pages.

Why storyboards work

First, storyboards help—force—students to think of content in chunks while also putting that information into a logical sequence: first this, then that; this input causes this, then this; this starts like this and ends like that, so these steps have to go in between. 

Second, the visual nature of storyboards helps students see the concepts and helps teachers see students’ thinking. Feedback can be instant, and revision options abound: If students mess up the sequence, simply cut the storyboard into pieces (ideas), reorder them, and glue or staple them into a new order. Likewise, boards can quickly be expanded and connected with the ideas of others, allowing concepts and stories to grow and evolve as new information and ideas are introduced. 

Finally, since they’re visual, even very young students or those who struggle to put thoughts into words can use this technique to share what they know. Whether students draw the images themselves, take pictures of props they manipulate, or find images via open-source sites, the objectives and learning outcomes remain the same, forcing students to process and show their thinking. 

When to use storyboards 

The flexibility of storyboarding means they can be used at any point in a lesson and for any content. Before, during, or after a lesson or unit, use storyboards to summarize, explain, or outline (this story, time period, person’s life, chemical reaction, life cycle, evolution of thought). If there’s a sequence of actions, ideas, or events, storyboards can help students organize and capture their thinking.

Use them with any grade level to tell the “story” of a math problem or concept; the “story” of how cells divide or atoms combine; the “story” of collaboration or empathy or what you learned today. Because really, anything can be a story. 

Science teacher Lauren Sako, of Jamestown, North Dakota, uses storyboards to help students understand several science processes such as photosynthesis, homeostasis, balancing equations, cellular respiration, and even the application of Newton’s laws. Before the unit, students complete a “What I think I know about photosynthesis” activity by taping pictures and keywords onto a storyboard. As the class goes through the unit, students rearrange their storyboards, fixing any errors and adding definitions, connections, and examples.  

Students can draw, cut out pictures, or copy and paste electronic images to build their boards. They can add textboxes, captions, and headings to flesh out information and expand details. Digital boards can be done in any Word document, slide deck, or whiteboard-type application, including Padlet, Canva, or Adobe Spark. The tactile option of working with paper may be better for shorter tasks that can be done right in the classroom, while the ease of digital storyboards makes them great for extended projects.    

At the beginning of a unit or lesson

Launch any lesson or unit using a short four-to-eight-box storyboard. This entry ticket option gives you a jumping-off point and helps students reflect on prior knowledge. 

Get organized: Plan stories, essays, and presentations. Ask students, “What are the big beats you need to include/cover?” “What’s the best sequence for the information?”

Make predictions: About how something works, the course of a story/life, the steps to solve an equation. Give students the first and last boxes, and have them predict how the content gets from box one to box six (or eight or 12).

Share what students know: Ask, “What preconceived notions do you have about this topic? Draw a picture for each understanding or piece of information you have for this topic/concept.” 

Within a unit or lesson

Help students capture their growing skills and knowledge of a concept by showing their thinking visually. As you work through content, storyboards can grow with students’ expanding knowledge. You can even build a class storyboard, adding new squares at key points throughout the unit.     

Check for understanding: For reading material, historical figures, the story of how chemical elements combine, or anything in between, have students storyboard their understanding instead of taking a quiz. Determine how many squares are on the quiz storyboard, and include hints or transitions to help them move through the creation of their board. 

Summarize: The concept, process, person, story, or material learned. Share and compare. Students can complete this individually or in teams. Assign groups to the beginning, middle, or end of a process or concept and then connect all the maps together for a full vision of the topic. Ask all students or teams to draw the steps, then rotate pictures and have someone else provide the captions. 

Break it down: Sequence any idea. Give students sentence starters and/or key vocabulary words they need to include in their storyboard. Or provide all the pictures, and have students put them in the right order and then summarize each step. 

At the end of a lesson or unit

Wrap up a lesson with a quick storyboard exit ticket, or use the storyboard format to help students outline a more substantial summative assessment. Students can also use a storyboard to break down a big project into steps, noting deadlines as well as potential obstacles to completion. Have them post their project deadline storyboards in the room and also text a picture of it to a guardian or peer for added accountability.  

Reflect: Ask students, “What did you learn: Tell the story of what you learned today/this unit.” “What was the topic, what’s super-clear for you, and what do you need to be clarified so you can better understand tomorrow?”

Predict: Ask, “What happens next? Make predictions on how this concept applies to future learning; outline what happens next in a story/process.”

Share: Tell students to show their understanding.  

With a wealth of free templates available to get you and your students started, this flexible teaching tool will surely become a welcome staple in your classroom.

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