Bronze tragedy and comedy masks hanging on a stone wall. Photo by Richard Milnes (Flickr).

About Drama as a Teaching Tool

At some point in your career, you may want to consider other instructional approaches that push the boundaries of traditional teaching methods. Acting is one creative approach that can be designed to meet your specific teaching goals.

Research on drama in the classroom indicates that it has many uses. Creating scenarios that bring students ‘outside the classroom’ can fulfill teaching goals that might not otherwise be possible. For instance, enacting the roles of people from history or with views that differ from their own can help students process complex or controversial topics. If standard debates have become stale in class, a more multifaceted skit can offer a way to obtain new perspectives on complex issues (e.g. genetically modified organisms, the use of military force, abortion debates). Students can explore multiple outcomes and evaluate choices they make along the way.

Employing drama can also enable students and instructors to break out of their standard patterns. For example, hold debates ‘in character’ so that students may critique each other (and the instructor) without feeling personally intimidated or disparaged. When carefully designed and explained, fictional scenarios can create ‘safe spaces’ for students to explore new angles on an issue. Afterward, students employ metacognition as they reflect on their own learning experience as well as the issue at hand.  Finally, employing skits, plays, or improv is out of the ordinary and is often very popular with students.

Using Drama

Professor John B. Taylor of Economics frequently injects a touch of drama and humor into his popular “Principles of Economics” course. On occasion, you can even see him arguing with the ghost of Adam Smith (Professor Taylor himself with a lower tone of voice and a Scottish accent, taped prior to the lecture) about the merits of economies of scale.

He covers as much material as he would in a traditional lecture style, but in a more memorable way that draws students into economics. Any touch of drama you can bring into a traditional class format will capture your students’ interest by surprising them, and sustain their attention by entertaining them (even if it’s not Academy-Award-winning material!).

In Professor Elizabeth Tallent’s perennially popular course “Development of the Short Story: Continuity and Innovation,” students are occasionally surprised throughout the quarter to find themselves at the theater instead of the lecture hall. Professor Tallent replaces her lectures at intervals with actors (sometimes former students) who perform skits or sections of plays that help illuminate connections between individual writers’ lives, their works, and the broader field of literature.

According to Teaching Assistant Nina Schloesser, these skits serve three key purposes in terms of learning. First, as a variation from lecture they capture students’ attention and help broaden conversations about the material. Second, the skits bring the writers to life, helping students to connect with the historical characters of the writers themselves and think about the role of the writers’ life experiences in their work. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the skits help give the students some emotional insight into the foundations of the craft of writing. Through the skits, the story of writing is made less abstract—the students can see that the art of writing is in constant dialogue with real personalities and experiences. As Schloesser explains, students can be truly moved, and short stories can become meaningful to them in new ways.

Here is a video of one of the skits in Professor Tallent’s short story course, featuring two actors performing a piece written by Tallent herself. It features Catherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf in conversation with each other about their lives and writing.

To include your students in using drama, Dr. Tom Freeland, who teaches oral communication at Stanford, suggests first cultivating a participatory atmosphere and ensuring that everyone gets to play a role. For him, employing drama is about allowing students to take on a new persona and explore aspects of their own nature to understand others. He notes it is something that children do automatically, but that we can forget as adults (read a full interview with Dr. Freeland). To reduce any nervousness in yourself or your students, you may want to include some of Freeland's warm-up exercises that serve to release tension (also in the interview).

Drama Activities to Try

STEM courses

Evidence suggests that using drama in science courses can help students better interpret and explain concepts. Medical courses can also benefit from skits mimicking patient-provider interactions. Some ideas:

  • In STEM courses that involve potential social impacts, assign roles that enable students to explore how particular inventions or developments affect different segments of society. For example, how does genetic testing create new issues for governments, researchers, parents-to-be, and more- or less-wealthy groups?
  • In graduate research courses, develop skits or employ improv to act out potential researcher/subject interactions.
  • Games aren’t precisely drama, but can produce similar learning effects. For undergraduate courses necessitating some memorization, develop course-specific Jeopardy or other games to help students review for exams.

Social science and humanities courses

The possibilities for using drama in these courses are many, as dramatic activities are particularly well-suited to exploring complex themes that may be open-ended. A few examples:

  • In fields where competing social theories exist, have students stage conversations or Q&A sessions with the leading theorists in the field. This requires students to interpret their responses through the lens of particular theories.
  • In law or communications courses, practice role-playing to help students develop argumentation, negotiation, interviewing, and leadership skills.
  • In business or management courses, create realistic scenarios that are half-finished; then have students supply the ‘missing’ dialogue relevant to the situation. This can also help you to gauge how well students are processing the material.

References and Further Reading:

Improvisationally Speaking - a case study of a Stanford course that uses improv techniques to teach public speaking

Barlow, S. & Skidmore, S. (1994). Dramaform: A Practical Guide to Drama Techniques. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Ho, F. and Ho, S.Y. (2011). Using Dramatic Monologue for Teaching Social Sciences. Pédagogie Collégiale, 2011, v. 24 n. 2, p. 15-20.

Johnstone, Keith. 2007. Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre. A&C Black.

Bonwell, Charles C., and James A. Eison. 1991. Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom. 1991 ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Reports. ERIC.

Neelands, J. & Goode, T. (2008). Structuring Drama Work: A Handbook of Available Forms in Theatre and Drama. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ødegaard, Marianne. 2003. “Dramatic Science. A Critical Review of Drama in Science Education.” http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/03057260308560196.

 Sulzman, Elizabeth W. 2004. “Games in an Introductory Soil Science Course: A Novel Approach for Increasing Student Involvement with Course Material.” Journal of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Education 33: 98–101.

Metcalfe, Robert J. Alban, Suzanne Abbott, Paul Bray, Joan Exley, and David Wisnia. 1984. “Teaching Science through Drama: An Empirical Investigation.” Research in Science & Technological Education 2 (1): 77–81.

Wasylko, Yolanda, and Theodore Stickley. 2003. “Theatre and Pedagogy: Using Drama in Mental Health Nurse Education.” Nurse Education Today 23 (6): 443–48.