Using Improv to Inspire Inclusion

Written by Kyle Emich, Anne Libera, Wendy Smith. Originally published on AACSB Insights.

The unscripted nature of improvisation creates unexpected opportunities for students to build connections, boost learning, and feel a sense of belonging.

  • Improvisation techniques aren’t just for comedians or stage performers—educators also can use them in their classrooms to increase student engagement, promote open communication, and draw attention to concepts.
  • Each improv exercise should have a “point of concentration” that clarifies the objective and focuses students on the task at hand.
  • After each exercise, students can discuss how successful they were in carrying out the exercise, including what went right, what went wrong, and what discoveries they made during the experience.

Inclusivity is a precondition for learning. To be motivated to perform in the classroom—that is, to learn—students must feel that they belong there. Yet, all too often, students feel as if they belong in the classroom only after they have demonstrated academic success.

In two previous articles, we identified practices that teachers and students can adopt to enable inclusivity. Here, we approach this topic from a different angle, reaching beyond academia to describe ways that The Second City comedians and improvisational performers create environments of inclusivity. We also discuss how you can adopt techniques to create more inclusive classrooms.

Unlocking Students’ Potential

Improvisational performance dates back to early Greek theater, but it did not become its own distinct art form until the mid-1900s. While such spontaneous engagement has been used for on-stage productions (mostly comedies), its early applications often took the form of therapeutic games meant to unlock human potential and self-expression.

Improv’s unscripted nature invites all participants to be present, engaged, and spontaneous. Over the past century, people have used its techniques not only to improve their performances on stage, but also to foster better interpersonal relationships and group interactions.

Improv’s value in unlocking human potential was confirmed in recent research conducted as part of The Second Science Project, a partnership between The Second City and The University of Chicago Booth School’s Center for Decision Research. Our study found that using an improvisation-based exercise called Thank You, Because helped participants engage in more inclusive conversations about areas of disagreement. Using this tactic, participants felt more heard and valued, and they perceived more common ground with others.

Using an improvisation technique called Thank You, Because, participants felt more heard and valued, and they perceived more common ground with others.

By using such techniques in your teaching, you can help students warm up to class material and quickly feel more present and included. For example, Anne Libera, a co-author of this article, introduces these methods in the extensive workshops that she runs in advanced and applied improv for corporations through The Second City Works, as well as in the courses that she teaches at Columbia College Chicago. She also teaches people how to use and apply the practices learned from these exercises in a variety of settings, ranging from corporate meetings to family caregiving.

For some people, improv may seem foreign and unattainable, a skill better left to the world of acting or late-night comedy television. Yet, we have found the opposite to be true. You do not need to be a trained actor to engage students in improvisation. You can adopt these techniques by making just a few subtle tweaks to your existing teaching practices.

Techniques to Try

Many exercises are based on traditional children’s games and have one simple goal—to support what pioneering improvisation teacher Viola Spolin calls the “point of concentration,” or the focus of the interaction or exercise. In their debriefing after each exercise, students can focus on three elements: first, whether they were able to maintain the point of concentration; second, what tactics they used to maintain the point of concentration; and, finally, what discoveries they made in the process.

It’s important to note that a single exercise can involve different points of concentration related to different learning outcomes. Below, we offer several techniques and exercises that we have used to improve classroom dynamics, as well as ideas for how each exercise can be adapted:

Pass the Clap. In this exercise, students stand or sit in a circle. Then, they try to “pass the clap” around the circle by turning to the person next to them and clapping at the same time. Passing a clap accurately is surprisingly difficult to do—students often make the common discovery that it’s more helpful to look into the eyes of the person with whom they are clapping, rather than at their hands.

Adaptation: Instructors can vary this exercise by establishing different points of concentration. For example, one objective might be to pass the clap as quickly as possible, while another might be to make the transfer as accurately and simultaneously as possible. Students will use different tactics while focusing on these different goals, and thus make different discoveries.

Count to 20. The objective of this technique is to count from one to 20 as a group—the point of concentration is that only one person can speak at a time. If multiple people speak at once, the group must start over. During a debriefing, students might discuss whether they were able to accomplish the goal, how they were able to coordinate without talking, what tactics they used when successful, and what made the task difficult.

Adaptation: Count to 20 can be used with large or small class sizes and in rooms with a variety of seating configurations. It can even be done virtually. But because Count to 20 is not easy to do, instructors could make it a class project to help students get better over time.

Red Ball. Participants stand in a circle. One player holds an imaginary ball (roughly the size of a softball) and chooses a second player to whom to throw the ball. Making eye contact, the first player says to the second player, “This is a red ball.” Before the first person throws it, the second player must say “Thank you, red ball.” After the second player “catches” the ball, he or she finds another player in the circle, and the pattern repeats.

Once the group is comfortable with one ball, other colors are added. The point of concentration is to keep all the balls going around the circle without losing any of them. At various points, the facilitator will pause the exercise to ask the group who is holding which color ball. Afterward, students can discuss whether they lost any balls, what tactics they used to make the exercise successful, and what they were doing when the exercise was not successful.

Adaptations: Once students are familiar with the pattern, teachers can experiment by having them throw and catch other things. These things can be silly as “a bag of cats.” Or, students can throw things related to class, such as concepts or information from the coursework, which can help with “embodied memorization and cognition.” For instance, in a class in applied improv, students might throw an imaginary representation of the “superiority theory of humor.”

Exercises for Inclusivity

As part of The Second Science Project, we have designed two exercises in particular to build skills in inclusivity. Both are based on insights from behavioral science research:

Universal/Unique. Done in pairs, this technique demonstrates the value of simple, nonvulnerable self-disclosure in building relationships. The students in each pair choose who is Person A and who is Person B. If a class has an odd number of students, a Person C can audit the exercise and be the first person to offer observations in the debriefing.

Person A is instructed to speak to Person B continuously for a minute about “What people do when they go grocery shopping,” using the generic second-person “you.” After the minute is up, Person A talks for another minute about what he or she personally does when going grocery shopping.

Then, Person B does the same thing, only in response to the prompt, “What do people do when they get up in the morning before they begin their day?” Then, Person B talks for a minute about what he or she personally does after first getting up in the morning.

During a debriefing, participants can share their thoughts on the following questions: How did you feel when speaking using the generic “you” compared to focusing on the personal and specific? What did you discover as your partner spoke in the two different modes?

Improv can increase students’ engagement with the classroom environment and each other, improve their adaptability, promote open communication, and draw attention to class concepts.

Thank You, Because. Based on the popular “Yes, And” principle of improvisation, this exercise builds on Nicholas Epley’s work on the power of gratitude to help people hold better conversations when the parties involved disagree. “Thank You, Because” can be done in seated pairs, but could also be done in virtual classrooms.

Participants pick a seemingly minor topic to discuss, but about which they strongly disagree—such as crunchy versus smooth peanut butter, or the correct way to hang toilet paper. In the first round, they try to convince their partners that their opinions are correct; in the second round, their partners must begin their response by saying “Thank you, because,” followed by whatever point they wish. They do not have to agree with what they heard; they must only respond with gratitude.

Here, the point of concentration is for participants to find something in what their partners say that they genuinely find useful or illuminating. During the debriefing, students can discuss what differences they perceived between the two rounds, whether they found it difficult to use the “Thank you, because” prompt, and what they discovered by doing so.

Gateways to Improvisation

The exercises above can increase students’ engagement with the classroom environment and each other, improve their adaptability, promote open communication, and draw attention to class concepts. Better yet, these methods are gateways to the wide world of improvisation that you can incorporate into your teaching.

By combining insights from education, theater, comedy, and your specialized discipline, you can create better learning experiences for all your students.

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