Monday, July 6, 2015

Getting Started: The Art of Improvisation

Rob: I’m really excited that we’re going to be using improvisations as one of our basic learner engagement activities in Power of Connections.

Stacy: I know this is something you’ve incorporated deeply into your teaching over the years. Do you want to talk a bit about what improvisation activities are and their benefits for learner engagement?

Rob: I can do that, unless you want to?

Stacy: I’m happy for you to handle it.

Rob: To start with, the idea behind improvisation activities is that we can stimulate different kinds of thinking and information processing by imposing constraints.

Stacy: Like limiting the amount of time people have to process something?

Rob: Right on. Time is definitely one of the constraints we use. Generally speaking, we like for them to be either spontaneous or time-limited. Other common constraints include the number and kinds of resources available for the improv, or the types of output allowed.

Stacy: So improvs are particularly useful for stimulating immediate and focused reflection related to specific concepts or skills.

Rob: And they also encourage both lateral thinking, or brain stretching, and creativity.

Stacy: And they’re great for both individual and group activities.

Rob: Exactly. And great for “teacher engagement” as well.

Stacy: Definitely. But, in keeping with our commitment to “show” vs. “tell,” maybe we should provide a quick example before we go any further.

Rob: That’s a great idea. Let’s use a really simple on, an improvisation with an object. This is an improv we use to help learners see something familiar in a different way, from new perspective. It’s an extremely flexible activity, and can be set up easily in any kind of environment.

The basic setup for this improvisation is really simple. I tell the group that I’m going to show them an object and then give them a set amount of time to write down as many ideas as possible about what the object might be. The only thing they can’t write down is what the object really is or what it’s actually used for.

In the simplest version of this activity, I ask participants to work individually and I set the time limit at 30 seconds. The time constraint works well as it helps provide focus for the activity. It also produces creativity by "forcing" people to accept possibilities that they might reject if they were given sufficient time to evaluate.

Stacy: Sounds easy enough. Let’s see it in action.

Rob: And, while we’re at it, let’s invite everyone at home to play along and practice their improv abilities. So, for all you folks out there watching this on the Internet, take a look at the improv video below, create a note with your response, and then share your response with the rest of the community. Here is a video that shows you how.

Improvisation with an Object

Stacy: Okay, that looks like fun. But I did have a question as I was watching this. It wasn’t clear to me whether I was supposed to name the thing, like “it’s a lampshade,” or “it’s a boxing bell,” of instead list the things the thing might to. Like, “it could hold things.”

Rob: Good point. As the facilitator, you can define the activity more narrowly or more broadly. As you’re starting out, it can also be helpful to provide an example. Here is one I created for us –Improvisation Activity #1: Improvisation with an Object.

Stacy: I can see tons of applications for that type of improv. And it’s so easy to create.

It also forces me as a teacher to think about my course information.

Stacy: And to engage in new and deeper ways.

Rob: The great thing is that all improvs contain the same essential parts.

Stacy: Exactly. when we set up an improvisation activity, we generally think about three separate parts – 1) the setup; 2) the activity; 3) the elaboration.

Rob: The setup is really important because it explains what the improvisation activity is and why it matters. This also helps everyone feel comfortable with the activity. That’s a big part of doing improvs with students since the open-ended nature of these activities causes a certain amount of anxiety for some. Not that discomfort is necessarily a bad thing – a bit of healthy anxiety can generate lots of creative thinking – but we generally want learners to be comfortably uncomfortable.

Stacy: And the activity part of the improv is the actual improvisation itself. That’s the part where everyone reflects, interacts, and creates based on the setup.

Rob: But a good improvisation doesn’t stop there. We also want to capture the energy and ideas created by the community, and then use that to extend the connectedness of the activity. That’s what we call the elaboration.

Stacy: That’s how we set them up. But there are also some core traits that make this activity type really valuable for learner engagement.

Rob: Absolutely. The first thing is that they are environment independent. Improvisations are activities that work extremely well for student engagement regardless of the physical or digital classroom setting. In other words, they can be conducted easily in both face-to-face or online environments. That’s particularly useful for instructors who teach the same courses in multiple environments.

Stacy: They’re also subject independent. They work equally well across all disciplines. They can be used effectively in Humanities, STEM, and Business courses alike. So the old excuse of "that’s a great idea but it won’t work for _________" just doesn’t hold true with improvisation activities.

Rob: Another great thing about improves is that they are time flexible. You can create improvisation activities that last under 2 minutes, or more elaborate exercises that take up to 10-15 minutes. The choice and design are entirely up to the instructor.

Stacy: And last, but certainly not least, improvs support many different delivery options. This means that they can work for any type of teaching style or personality. This means the other old excuse of "that’s a great idea but it won’t work with my teaching style," is also a non-starter with these activities.


  1. You say tomato...

    Improvs come in many shapes and sizes, and we’ll be exploring number of different models in the course. In general, improvs often fall into categories of constraint (forcing reflection and creativity by removing options) or addition (forcing reflection and creativity by adding new or unexpected elements to a familiar model. I like improvs because I can use them anywhere (face-to-face and online), although context may influence which models I use. You’ll see that I’ve tried to come up with different ways to present improvs and responses in an online environment. I’m always interested in hearing about the experience of others (new, better, alternate ideas) and suggestions about how to present them for maximum impact.

  2. This is one way to do it

    I took a down-and-dirty approach with the video for this improv. It took me 5-10 minutes to create the PowerPoint and then record it (with Camtasia). I would have been faster but I kept stumbling over my words.

  3. Improvisation #1 (Rob's list)

    Comment: hat, earring, flying saucer, Martian hill, Apple headquarters, chair cushion