Improvisational comedy, or just improv, is theater that is made up on the spot without scripts. Improv shows range from a series of short comedic games to fully improvised plays. The goal of improv is (usually) to be comedic. The comedy often comes from improvisers being truthful, creative, and able to respond in the moment.
I have used improvisational comedy games and exercises in just about every course I have ever taught, ranging from Precalculus at a large public university to a senior capstone at my current small liberal arts institution. My early teaching experiences as a graduate student at the University of Texas coincided with my newly found hobby of performing improv comedy at The Hideout Theatre in downtown Austin. Very quickly, I realized that the fundamental tenets of improv–say “Yes, And,” be supportive of fellow players, react “in the moment,”–were all applicable to the dynamics I wanted to create in my math courses.
Over the years, I have developed my identity as a teacher who uses active learning techniques, such as inquiry-based learning and flipped classrooms. These teaching paradigms require a lot of student participation, creativity, and risk-taking. (Asking students to really DO math in front of each other is a hard thing I ask of them!) Using improv exercises has allowed me to get at these meta-skills in a novel way. I have seen groups of students support each other during an improv warm-up and then apply that support to feedback during an inquiry-based learning session. I have seen shy students participate loudly during an improv exercise and then volunteer to present a Calculus problem on the board. I have seen my research students use improv games to bond and to calm their nerves before their first major conference presentation.
I am a believer in the power of improv to improve our students’ abilities to work together, to be creative, and to problem solve. I am also a believer that the lessons learned from studying improv can make us all better communicators and better mathematicians. I hope that the resources on this site inspire you to try some improv in your classes.