Theater improvisation techniques show promising results for engagement in the science classroom

A researcher from the University of Maryland in Baltimore County (UMBC) has developed a unique method to improve class participation in a graduate thermodynamics course by including classroom improvisation activities in the classroom. Erin Lavik, assistant dean for research and development at the faculty and professor of chemical, biochemical and environmental engineering at UMBC, wanted to find a way to encourage better participation in the thermodynamic seminar and thought it would allow students to warm up through theater. their self-confidence in discussing complex topics. Based on her case studies of participation in classes on days when improvisational activities were conducted, as well as anonymous student feedback, Lavik confirmed that improvisational activities led to a higher rate of engagement and participation. The findings were published in Biomedical Engineering Education.

The research was conducted during the terms for fall 2019, spring and summer 2020, and improvisation techniques were used in person and digitally, after distance learning became the new norm. At the beginning of the lecture, Lavik used various improvised games. One example is “Yes, and,” which encourages students to listen to each other and build on what the previous person said to create a meaningless story.

The importance of listening in this game encourages a careful classroom. Everyone is expected to participate in the story at least once, creating a community of students who are willing to pay attention and react easily. In a survey data collected by Lavik, students said that when improvised games took place, they felt more alert, engaged and ready to participate.

These findings are housed in a larger body of evidence showing that performing improvisational exercises can support alertness. Students who believe they are capable of improvising and thinking on their feet use this knowledge to reduce anxiety both in their studies and in general. The positive reinforcement associated with the activities after their completion was aimed at making students feel more comfortable talking and making mistakes on the course.

Now that most university lectures take place online, participation in seminars and discussions is more important than ever, but these platforms make active student participation even less likely. However, given that improvisation activities can be performed entirely online and show promising initial results, Lavik believes the technique could help engage everyone more effectively.

“Improvisational exercises often led to laughter, especially exercises inspired by thermodynamics,” Lavik says. “It helps create an environment where it’s okay to try new ideas and experiment. It’s easier to ask questions when people feel like they’re part of a group.”

The use of this interdisciplinary method has proven to be very effective in engaging students and creating a classroom, which is especially important given the common limitations of online learning. Giving a final note on the benefits of this project, Lavik says: “We can do a lot to increase learning by creativity in different disciplines. This is just one example of why it is so important to talk through our expertise, sharing ideas and techniques in different fields.”


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