Acting and Learning in the College Classroom

You can help your students learn through acting, just one of the many creative instructional techniques you can use in the college classroom.  Of course, we are not talking about performing Hamlet in a Calculus class.  Shakespeare does not “integrate” well into mathematics.  Anyway, read on and see I mean.

How Can Acting out a Play Help Students Learn?

Writing and acting out a play, one that relates to the subject at hand, can help your students learn.  There are three reasons for this:

  1. Active Learning – When students write a skit related to a course topic, they become actively self-engaged in the learning process.  They learn the material because they use the material.
  2. Multiple Learning Modalities – The students who are cast into the “staring” roles exercise all three learning modalities – Visual, Auditory and Kinesthetic.  They will read their lines, and they observe their fellow actors.  They hear themselves and their costars speaking their lines.  And, they act.
  3. Student Engagement – Inevitably, a classroom skit that is written and acted by students is going to be humorous.  A little bit of over-acting and a muffed line or two will certainly precipitate a few giggles from their classmates in the audience.  And isn’t classroom participation something you value? Face it; some of you students will pay closer attention to their classmates than to you. 🙁

Should Acting Come Into Play?

The next time you assign a written paper, consider giving students the alternative of writing and performing a short play.  Or maybe, if you give your students extra credit opportunities, this could be one.  However, first a few words of caution.

Acting does not lend itself well to all subjects, Anatomy and Physiology for example; and an in-class performance can rob valuable time from other learning activities.  You will want to establish strict time limitations.  You should also provide a very specific grading rubric, without which there may be little educational value.  The play may be all play with no learning.  In addition, you will want to assess your students’ learning, particularly that of the students in the audience.  To that end, you might engage the class in a follow-up discussion, which can become a richer learning experience than the play itself.  Or maybe you assign the students in the audience the role of critics.  But again, some ground rules would be prudent.  You will want your play critics to discuss how well the cast communicated the topic and what they learned from the performance as opposed to blaspheming the acting performances.

Students as Actors, Not Writers

Do you think it a bit too much to ask your students to write and perform a play that achieves worthwhile learning objectives?  You may be right, but that doesn’t preclude all opportunities for thespian inspired learning.  Write you own skit, and have student volunteers perform it in front of the class.  That is exactly what one of my adjunct instructors did.  If you are like Dr. Philip Nubel you may want to give it a shot yourself.

Phil Nubel is a Ph.D. chemist who continuously strives to engage his Introduction to Chemistry students, something that can be a challenging, and sometimes even frustrating, task.  Many students take this course only because they need a general education science elective, and it fit into their schedule.  Few if any plan to major in chemistry.  What Phil did was to write a short play to help his students understand the basics of chemical reaction rates.  He incorporated a little humor and created a parody of the 1964 James Bond movie Goldfinger, which he entitled “Dr. Goldlove: or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Alchemy.”  There were three roles, those of Narrator, Corporate CEO and Dr. Goldlove, a chemist who had been working 10 years on a project to turn lead into gold.

Script for a Chemistry Play

Phil shared the play script with me for two reasons.  First, he was justifiably proud of the creative way he designed this classroom learning activity.  Second, he was paying homage to the dean who kiddingly refers to this discipline as “alchemy.”  (At least I tell my chemistry faculty I am kidding.  It really is alchemy, you know.  😉 ).  I read the script.  While Phil’s future as a playwright is off Broadway (way, way off Broadway), I could see the instructional value.  That is why I requested his permission to talk about his work in this article.

Is Playing Around a Good Idea for You and Your Class?

A classroom skit may or may not be right for you and your students.  It depends on your creativity as a playwright and/or your ability to effectively structure and manage such a performance assignment.  It also depends on the subject and topic at hand.  Then too, personalities come into play.  You may be a wonderful college instructor for whom such an activity just doesn’t work; it isn’t you.  Don’t go down this road if you are not comfortable with it.  Or you may have a group of students whom you judge unlikely in their ability to make this work.

Don’t be afraid to experiment, however.  The lesson that we can all learn from Phil Nubel’s experience is that there can be rewards for taking a pedagogical chance on a new, creative instructional activity.  Unconventional learning activities can help students learn.  Besides, they can be fun for the teacher and the students.  Yes, it is permissible to have fun in class.  🙂

© 2010 Paul A. Hummel, Ed.D.

December 30, 2010

About Dr. Paul A. Hummel, Ed.D.

My name is Paul Hummel, and I often introduce myself to others as a recovering engineer. If you are familiar with the Dilbert cartoons, let me simply say that I lived all of that. I started my college saga at Illinois Institute of Technology. Eventually, I earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering and a Master’s Degree in Engineering Management. I worked for many years in industry, and during this time I did some college adjunct teaching. During my career I held several managerial positions in industry, the last as Director of Technology of a division of a Fortune 500 corporation. Then, in 1996, with minimal planning or forethought, I found myself working as a manufacturing consultant on behalf of Elgin Community College (ECC). My career in higher education began to take shape. I fell in love with ECC and with the mission of community colleges in general. I worked fulltime and occasionally taught college courses for my institution and two other colleges. After a couple years I set a goal to move over to the “credit side of the college” and eventually become a college administrator. In 2006, having earned my doctorate in education, I achieved that goal. I was hired by Waubonsee Community College as Dean for Technology, Mathematics and Physical Sciences. I have had the great fortune of working at two excellent colleges. The insights I want to share are drawn from the various college positions I have held. At ECC, in addition to my consulting role, I coordinated non-credit professional development training programs for three years and spent four years advising students in the TRiO Student Support Services program. That position helped me understand college education from the perspective of today’s college students. After seven years at Waubonsee, I retired April 30, 2013. I now devote my knowledge and skills to upgrading and expanding the websites I created beginning with Adjunct Assistance. I have three other websites: College Teaching Tips, Keys for College Success and Lighthouse for Learning. A lot of work lies ahead for me in terms of upgrading and expanding each of these websites, but I could not be more excited about fulfilling the vision I have for helping college instructors and their students succeed.


Acting and Learning in the College Classroom — 1 Comment

  1. Yes, at last someone that shares exactly the same thoughts and ideas on this as myself. Great stuff. Really enjoy your site.

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