Teaching Today

Teaching Lessons From Remote Improv

Byron Stewart describes how he uses shortcuts to help build classroom community and help students who are strangers become a close-knit team.

October 21, 2020

Teaching improv to reserved, introspective and stressed engineering students can be challenging in person. So when the pandemic arrived, teaching remotely seemed nearly impossible. How could we build the type of trusting community required for a successful improv class while looking at each other through screens? My co-teacher and I couldn’t imagine that the same methods used in person would work online.

I’m pleased to admit that we were wrong. In the latest section of our Engineering Improv course at Northwestern University, I developed and introduced a new hack, which I call shortcuts. Shortcuts are a reminder to focus on the details, to encourage students to share seemingly small aspects of their lives and use those details to build community. Just as a shortcut along a path provides a speedier way to get to the same place, these shortcuts help students who are strangers become a close-knit team more quickly.

Here’s how it works.

Professional improv teams spend a great deal of time rehearsing. They share life experiences, discover hidden talents and establish inside jokes. They build chemistry and community that can be called on as a shortcut to character choices and scene creation. Similarly, shortcuts have the power to create community and connection in a classroom of strangers. If a student learns their team member is a manager at Target, for example, they might start a scene in the diaper aisle.

To adapt this idea to our online course, I ask students to read chapters from improv-based textbooks between classes and to then write reflective essays based on that assigned reading material. I instruct them to share details in those essays about their own lives that relate to the reading. Prior to class, I read the essays and make note of interesting details about each student, such as their hobbies, pets, part-time jobs and internships. Either consciously or unconsciously, students omit such details when talking about themselves in class, assuming they are irrelevant to class discussions.

Those details provide the basis for shortcuts in our Engineering Improv course. When I start the discussion section of class, I ask the students what they discovered from the reading. As the discussion progresses, I call on students at random and quote shortcuts from their essays, highlighting intriguing details and humorous observations. Students never know who will be called on next, so their attention is high. In hearing each other’s shortcuts, they learn about themselves and their peers. Students say they enjoy the discussion section, as it helps them get to know each other quickly and in a meaningful way.

By remembering each other’s details, students gain the ability to create improv scenes quickly and get to know each other better in the process. As students learn more about their collective similarities and differences, they become more comfortable more quickly with themselves and others. In fact, even when doing improv online, our students have increased connections and built a sense of community and trust through shortcuts. It has helped them open up to taking risks, making unexpected character choices and feeling less afraid to make mistakes in front of an audience.

Of course, improv isn’t the only class where my shortcuts method applies. Reflective essays -- which challenge students to observe, examine and describe personal experiences -- can accompany any class. In a history class, for example, students can write an essay about the meaning of an important historical event to help them better grasp the outcome. Or in medical school, students can write reflective essays about experiences of their patients to help improve their bedside manner.

Since implementing shortcuts in our virtual classroom, I’ve noticed that students often hang around and talk with each other during class breaks, continuing to make connections based on what they learned about each other during the class discussion. Our students report that, in addition, they spend more time continuing to get to know each other during team rehearsals outside class. Not only have their performances appeared “onstage,” but they also have fun getting to know their peers.

They also tell me that feeling such a sense of community and connection does not often occur in their other engineering courses. Perhaps it should.


Byron Stewart is an adjunct lecturer at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering. He designed and co-teaches two courses -- Engineering Improv I and II -- for undergraduate engineering students. He has been a science communication instructor for Northwestern’s RCTP Science Communication program, where he uses his theater background as a performer/director to help postdocs and graduate students take command of the stage and have a presence.


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