We developed these performing arts teaching methods in response to our students needs in the environmental social sciences – but our ideas and methods are applicable in any subject and context. At their heart is the idea that lecturers need performance skills to be able to engage and enthuse their students more effectively. Combining these with comedy improvisation skills allows us to develop theatrical performances to convey key ideas to students in a way they will never forget.
The idea was originally developed for Gill Seyfang’s Sustainable Consumption module, and has since been developed and adapted for debates in Environmental Politics and Energy and People. The primary objective was to convey complex theoretical concepts in an entertaining and accessible manner, and so improve student engagement in learning.
Getting to grips with competing ideas about how society works is particularly challenging for students more used to dealing with ‘facts’ than ‘theories’. Enacting a drama between characters (representing different positions) that simply don’t get along well together brings this to life. Students can attach complex ideas to memorable characters, in quite simple dramatic situations, and this really helps students learn.
“Theoretical Theatre made me interested to learn more” Read about students’ responses here!
In previous years of running the module, we had struggled to convey (and many students had therefore failed to grasp) the fact that different social theories present fundamentally different understandings of what the social world is and how it operates. Often, in previous years, students had come away with the impression that simply combining different theories would provide the most ‘complete’ and therefore the ‘best’ understanding of social life. We needed them to understand that theories can’t always be uncritically added together, but instead that they sometimes (even often) disagree with each other in quite fundamental ways. The performance shows these disagreements (literally!) as the heart of the drama.
Seeing lecturers perform comedy improvisation has a huge impact on students: they are surprised, amused, engaged and attentive to the drama literally playing out in front of them. It relaxes students and introduces playfulness into their learning, and breaks down barriers between teacher and learner, which again helps them learn more effectively. Later in the module, students adopt the various characters themselves to argue about a topic, and this really cements their understanding, while building confidence, teamwork, presentation skills and empathy.
The student response has been overwhelmingly positive (demonstrated through informal and formal student feedback on the module) and the gains in learning outcomes have been significant: the average coursework grade jumped from 60% in 2011 (pre-initiative) to 67% in 2012, and 65% in 2013 on the basis of students having a far better grasp of key concepts than previous cohorts. One student commented “I tried reading beforehand but didn’t grasp the ideas very well … the demonstration made it more clear and got me into thinking about the coursework” and another said “It is quite something for a department to put on something for their students like this. I was really impressed. Thanks for going that extra mile!”
But this is more than a bit of fun – the learning outcomes have been significant in all the classes where we’ve used this method. Class discussions and questions throughout the rest of the teaching semester demonstrate that students are really grasping the fundamental concepts in a way they had not done before.