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Improvisation Leads to Increased Participation, Even Online

New study shows that improv helps students focus better and participate more.

Photo by Felicia Buitenwerf on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Felicia Buitenwerf on Unsplash

I’ve talked to some of my former teaching colleagues, and let me just say that students and teachers are not alright. Students who used to show up to class are now considered “lost students,” and technology is adding communication barriers for those students who are still showing up online. That’s why I found this new study on improvisation and classroom participation so compelling.

New Study

Erin Lavik, Sc.D., Professor of Chemical, Biochemical, and Environmental Engineering at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, recently published a paper on the effects of improv in her thermodynamics graduate courses. Half of the classes began with small group discussions, while the other half started with three to five minutes of improv games such as “Yes, and,” Experts, and Machines. These are all fairly common improv exercises, which Lavik pulls from Viola Spolin's and Keith Jonhstone’s games and exercises.

Lavik found that students in classes that began with improv participated more during class. In classes that began with group discussions, 50 percent of students did not participate at all. Whereas, in classes that began with some improv, 100 percent of students participated at least once.

Students also completed surveys, which showed that over half the students thought improv helped them focus and feel more alert.

Then, the pandemic forced classes to go remote. Lavik continued her experiment by incorporating improv into her remote thermodynamics classes. Through trial and error, Lavik found that “Yes, and” worked online when students held up numbers to know whose turn was next. Experts was the most successful online exercise and was made even more online-friendly through the use of a moderator who could guide other students through the exercise.

I reached out to Lavik who described to me the effects of improv activities as classes moved online. She explained, “Online, it's been remarkable how much people seem to look forward to it. It is an icebreaker at a time when everyone is really stressed.” And people are certainly stressed right now, so integrating improv into online learning makes a lot of sense.

Improv in the Academic Classroom

Lavik’s study is an exciting new affirmation that improv does have a place in academic courses. Lavik’s study seems strategic, methodical, and reflective, which are all crucial to integrating improv effectively. This new study adds to the growing body of work that shows how and why improv should be integrated into the classroom. Mary DeMichele’s study showed that students wrote more after participating in improv exercises, and the team of Sirke Seppänen, Tapio Toivanen, Tommi Makkonen, Iiro P. Jääskeläinen, Mikko Anttonen, and Kaisa Tiippana demonstrated that improv can be effective in reducing students’ stress levels before public speaking. This is on top of all the academic papers that have been published showing how improv reduces anxiety, such as Kristin Krueger's and Peter Felsman, Colleen Seifert, and Joseph Himle’s work.

There is mounting evidence that improv can be so much more than just playing games and getting silly. It can help shy students speak up and anxious students calm down. I’ve seen firsthand how powerful improv can be in getting a group of students to collaborate, build trust, and get creative. It's encouraging to read papers like Lavik’s that confirm what so many improvisers and improv teachers have known for so long.


Follow Erin Lavik on Twitter. And while you're at it, follow me on Twitter, too!

DeMichele, M. (2015). Improv and ink: Increasing individual writing fluency with collaborative improv. International Journal of Education & the Arts, 16(10).

Felsman, P., Seifert, C. M., & Himle, J. A. (2019). The use of improvisational theater training to reduce social anxiety in adolescents. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 63, 111-117.

Goodnough, A. (2020, September 22). As Schools Go Remote, Finding 'Lost' Students Gets Harder. Retrieved October 09, 2020, from

Krueger, K. R., Murphy, J. W., & Bink, A. B. (2019). Thera-prov: a pilot study of improv used to treat anxiety and depression. Journal of Mental Health, 28(6), 621-626.

Lavik, E. (2020). Thermo in the Time of COVID-19: Using Improvisation to Foster Discussion and Translating the Experience to Online Learning. Biomedical Engineering Education, 1-6.

Minero, E. (2020, August 21). 8 Strategies to Improve Participation in Your Virtual Classroom. Retrieved October 09, 2020, from…

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