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This past weekend, I saw Ramalamadingdong High, a rockin’, rollin’ improvised retro musical along the lines of Grease, Rock ’n’ Roll High School and School of Rock. A group of 20-somethings made up the high-octane score, songs and ne’er-do-well characters on the spot.

Sure, it was silly. But it was a heck of a lot of fun. The performers’ energy and enthusiasm were contagious. The audience loved the show.

As a graduate student, a lot of what I know about teaching came from an improv class that I took alongside the MacArthur Prize–winning historian of the American West Patricia Limerick. From Patty, I discovered the importance of anecdotes, humor, playfulness and creative risk-taking in the classroom. Improv techniques, which emphasize learning by doing and mental agility, not only make learning more fun and collaborative but help students overcome anxiety and build confidence.

Ask an AI-powered text generator or Wikipedia about the history of improv and you will be told that improv dates back to ancient Rome around 400 BCE or to 16th-century commedia dell’arte. But that’s not what we typically mean by improv today. That was largely the invention of Viola Spolin, improv’s founding mother.

The daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrant parents born in Chicago in 1906, Spolin (née Viola Mills) studied at Jane Addams’s Hull House, where she was taught that children learn best through self-led play: art, dance, group play, storytelling and theater. Her original aim was to create imaginative skits, sketches, songs and monologues using a series of games and exercises not with actors or performers but with troubled children. She envisioned this as a high-energy way to help the children build confidence and trust and collaboration and teamwork skills.

Later, her son, Paul Sills, and others would create the first improv theater, The Compass Players, in 1955 and, four years later, they founded Second City, where performers like Steve Carell, Tina Fey, Eugene Levy, Shelley Long, Bill Murray, Amy Poehler and Amy Sedaris got their start.

Improv’s golden age may well be behind us. Alan Arkin, John Belushi, John Candy, Jane Curtin, Chris Farley, Phil Hartman, Mike Nichols, Gilda Radner and Harold Ramis are dead. Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, Billy Crystal, Mike Myers and Harry Shearer are (largely) retired.

But that doesn’t mean that the qualities that define improv have lost their value. Improv is spontaneous, and therefore every performance is unique. The audience is part of the show. Its suggestions and reactions drive the performance. There are lessons here that I am convinced are enormously useful in higher education.

To be sure, many improv games are nonverbal, like charades, and aren’t well suited to the college classroom. There are, for example, mirror games, in which one player must mimic the emotions and behavior of another.

Then there are story exercises, in which one player must add to or follow up on what a previous player said in order to create a compelling narrative.

There are literally dozens of games and improv exercises. Some of the most famous techniques include:

  • The bartender game: One character spills out her or his problems, and the bartender offers advice.
  • The bedtime story: A mother or father figure or a babysitter tries to tell a go-to-sleep story while the child figure responds and resists.
  • The bucket: Participants draw sentences out of a container and must bring those lines into the scene.
  • First line, last line: The participants get a prompt and must act it out.
  • Point of view: Each character in a conversation must express a particular perspective.
  • Questions only: Participants act out a scene in which they only ask questions of one another.
  • Make the sale: One character must create a sales pitch to persuade others about a particular idea or thing to do.

Perhaps the most famous improv technique is the Harold. An audience member makes a suggestion, and the players then riff around that suggestion in the form of a skit, a song or a monologue.

It’s easy to understand how improv can be used in rehab or therapy. It offers a highly effective tool for addressing issues involving anxiety, confidence, self-esteem and relationships. It helps clients or patients get in touch with their body, intuition, feelings and emotions and develop communication skills and trust in a supportive environment.

But what about the college classroom? Many of these exercises aren’t relevant to the classroom. But some are.

The improv exercises most useful in college teaching involve role-playing, acting out a scene or a predicament, illustrating a concept, conducting an interview, providing advice, or acting like an expert or teacher. As in improv comedy or music, it’s essential not to take the exercise too seriously. After all, one of the goals of this kind of pedagogy is to make learning joyful and the students ardent participants in their own education.

Here are some techniques you might try:

  • An ice-breaking exercise: Ask students to quickly say their name and one interesting fact about themselves.
  • “Yes, and”: Ask one student to make a statement about a class topic, and then ask other students to build on or refine that statement.
  • Role-playing: Have students assume roles in scenarios relevant to the course material or take on a particular perspective on the course material.
  • A vocabulary game: Give a student team a concept or term and have them act it out.
  • An advice game: Ask one student to pose a question or a call for advice to a small group of classmates and have them devise a collective way of responding to that query.
  • A picture game: Provide a small group of students with an artwork or photograph and have them devise a skit that explicates and interprets the image.
  • Staging an interaction: Have two students stage an interaction and have the other students interpret the performance.

A piece of advice: make sure to incorporate a feedback loop into the class. Much as improv theater performers feed off audience reactions, you want your students to actively respond to the performance that they are witnessing.

Improv can be freakin’ scary. Performers must think fast on their feet and make things up on the fly. They must extemporize, ad-lib, speak impromptu and seamlessly interact with one another. Yet just because improv can seem intimidating or nerve-racking, it’s still worthwhile. There is no better way for students to acquire mental flexibility, nimble-mindedness and adaptability.

But if improv is unscripted, that doesn’t mean that it’s created without preparation or premeditation. Improv may seem instinctual or spur-of-the-moment, but it actually depends on careful planning and extensive practice. Rehearsal is essential.

That’s especially true of improv musicals, which require performers to work as an ensemble and communicate seamlessly with an accompanist. The singers must be intimately familiar with various genres, styles and structures.

When you integrate improv into your class, give groups of students a bit of time to formulate a plan and debrief with them after a performance and let them discuss what worked well and what was less successful.

Yes, you can and should bring improv techniques into your classroom. Sure, using improv techniques requires a willingness to let go of rigid control and embrace spontaneity. Certainly, some students will resist, either out of nervousness or a belief that improv is too childish or frivolous.

I wholeheartedly disagree. Improv can reduce social anxiety and stress, boost confidence and creativity, and activate the portions of the brain that stimulate language. It can make learning more inclusive and collaborative and transform your classroom into a true community of learning. It can also help students become more comfortable with public speaking. In an article about how improv can transform your life and your teaching, Clemson professor Michelle L. Boettcher quoted an improv instructor: “You can’t be in improv if you’re a jerk, because you have to be supportive of one another,”

Above all, improv techniques can lead to a more engaged, dynamic, interactive and vibrant learning environment where students are active participants in the learning process.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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