College Students: Choosing the Best Short Moral Stories with Valuable Lessons

First-year college students tend to hate reading literature. As an instructor of freshman English classes, it is your job to choose short stories that students will not only enjoy, but also hopefully appreciate. The moral of the story—the moral values emphasized throughout the short stories—are significant life lessons that students can carry with them beyond your class, so it’s important to share impactful stories when given the opportunity.

An example of a short inspirational story you might be very familiar with is that of the boy who cried wolf. The plot line? Simple. Out of boredom, a shepherd boy repeatedly claims to the townspeople that there is a wolf after the sheep, even when there isn’t. Eventually, the townspeople stopped believing his claims, so nobody would come help him when a wolf really did show up. This particular story might be a little outdated for college students, but the message is timeless and clear: ‌even when a liar tells the truth, no one will believe him.

There are several things to consider when choosing the short stories that you will require your students to read.

Consider the class’s reading level.‌ This may be difficult to do before you actually meet your class. The more teaching experience you have, the easier this will get.

Think about what you wouldn’t mind reading if you hated to read.‌ Your students are not likely going to be English majors, so they probably aren’t going to want to read. They’re also preoccupied with all things social media, and moral lessons might not be at the forefront of their minds. Stay away from overly complex stories that first-year college students won’t easily understand.

But, don’t just pick simple ones.‌ You want to challenge your students to think a little bit—but thinking doesn’t have to be hard work. Instead of choosing a story like “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” by Katherine Anne Porter that is written in stream of consciousness, which can be very confusing for students, choose one like “A Hunger Artist” by Franz Kafka, which has an easily understood plot, but very complex themes and symbols. It is difficult for students to understand the theme, symbol, narrator or other literary elements if they don’t easily understand the story’s plot. You don’t want the important life lessons getting buried in the text.

Try to expand your students’ horizons.‌ That’s what college is all about anyway, right? Choose stories and authors that students may not have heard of or stories that are set in far-off places, like “The Lady with the Pet Dog” by Anton Chekhov or “Miss Brill” by Katherine Mansfield.

Look for stories with themes that all students can identify with.‌ Stories about family conflicts and generation gaps, like Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use,” or socio-economic differences, like Toni Cade Bambara’s “The Lesson,” are good choices.

Choose ones with bizarre, twisty or soap-opera-like plots.‌ The more scandalous the story, the more likely students are to like it. “A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner and “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor both have surprising endings, and students tend to like them.

Choose a variety of stories.‌ Include stories by a variety of authors, written in different time periods, set in different places, written in different styles and so on.

Make sure that all of the stories that you choose are included in the required textbook for the class, if there is one.‌ Do not make students look for stories outside of the textbook or give them photocopies of stories not in the book. Textbooks are expensive and if you are requiring students to buy them, it is disrespectful to not fully use them. Also, students tend to lose handouts.

  • Beware of what students think that they like. For example, many students think that they like Edgar Allan Poe stories, most likely because they have heard of him. But, when students actually read one of his stories, like “The Masque of the Red Death” or “The Cask of Amontillado,” they tend not to understand it or like it as much as they think that they will.
  • If you assign “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor and your students tell you it is about a woman looking for a husband, that’s a big clue that they didn’t read the story. Essays have been turned in about the dating themes in the story. If you’ve read it, you know that there is no “dating” in the story!
  • The stories referenced above appear in most English course anthology textbooks.
  • For extra credit, allow students to choose a short story not on your reading list to present to the class. It is interesting to see what they choose when they get to decide what to read for themselves.

Erica Sweeney is a freelance writer and editor based in Little Rock, Ark. She has a master's in journalism from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Her work has been published at, Arkansas Times, Aging Arkansas and Arkansas Business.