Comedy in the Classroom

innovative teaching in higher education, using the performing arts to engage and inspire students

About

Welcome to our resource and inspiration hub for innovative and engaging teaching in higher education. We are a group of academics at the University of East Anglia, UK, using the performing arts and comedy improvisation as teaching tools to immerse students in active learning, and create exciting and memorable classes.

This website showcases our award-winning work, explains our rationale, and will offer how-to guides and lesson plans for others to adapt and try the methods out for themselves. We’d love to know what you think and how you get on using these ideas – get in touch and let us know!

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Is there room for comedy in the classroom? What is the pedagogical role of the performing arts? Should teachers tread the boards? Can improvisation inspire? and should silliness support student learning? We think so, and we’d like to tell you why.

We are a group of academics in the Science, Society and Sustainability (3S) Research Group at UEA who have been working together to develop innovative team-teaching methods for enhancing student engagement in learning. This has sparked debate and inspiration on being more creative and effective in teaching, and our ideas are catching on across the School of Environmental Sciences at UEA and further afield.

We have created a series of comedy improvisation performances which convey key theoretical ideas and debates in an engaging and entertaining manner. These performances enrol students as active learners and set the foundation for follow-on student activities around creating their own performances. Using the performing arts to teach standard academic subjects injects playfulness and fun into the classroom, as well as developing students’ confidence, communication and teamwork skills, and empowering students to enact situations, debates, viewpoints and actions that they might not otherwise express in class. Comedy wigs and glasses are just a bonus.

We’re using comedy improvisation here, but the essence of its success is in creating an emotional connection with students – whether laughter, tears, or joy. This could be achieved through any performing art, e.g. dance, music and song, poetry, art, theatre, and so on. As a complement to ‘normal’ lectures, the performing arts allows us to show, not tell ideas and concepts, and reach out to learners in a quite different way.

We have achieved national and international recognition for our work. Gill Seyfang and Tom Hargreaves have won UEA Teaching Excellence awards on the strength of this work, and Gill is currently a UEA Teaching Fellow, developing and depending these methods at UEA and beyond (this website is part of that effort). We have presented and discussed this work at the Royal Geographical Society Annual International Conference in 2013 and the Higher Education Academy’s Social Sciences conference, 2015. It has been showcased as an international benchmark of inspiring and innovative teaching in sustainable consumption.

Screen Shot 2015-11-12 at 17.50.38Although putting together a piece like this is hard work and time-consuming, the benefit is that once it’s been developed, it can be repeated with little additional effort. Creating a new piece takes a few sessions to develop characters and dramatic situations, but in subsequent years we find that a single run-through on the morning of the performance itself is enough to refresh our memories and get the adrenaline flowing. 

Not everyone has the time or colleagues to do something like this, but there are endless opportunities for student-led performances that can come off the back of one of these performances or videos – maybe you’ll find the films helpful in your own classes, and plan a follow-on workshop activity for your students? Or even a one-person performance can be enough to bring a subject to life and kick-start students to develop further performances? We will be adding class ideas and suggestions to the Resources section over the next few months, and would love to hear more about what you’ve done yourselves.

We hope to contribute to sharing experiences in developing these creative and innovative teaching methods, reflecting on their benefits and limitations, and the potential for theatre and comedy to play a larger role on the frontiers of teaching in higher education.

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