Students in Tammy Rice-Bailey’s Collaborative Design class put their learning in motion with a class dedicated to improvisation, or improv. Improv is a type of live theater where everything is made up on the spot and the actors are required to improvise their lines and actions, often starting with suggestions from the audience.

Rice-Bailey initially introduced improvisational games into her Professional Presentations class four years ago. “It was a way to make my students feel comfortable getting up in front of their classmates in preparation for more formal presentations.” The idea of implementing improv into the classroom sprouted from reading business journals, such as Forbes and Harvard Business Review, that had examined business applications of improv games used by actors in improvisational theater. “I figured if it worked in business, it might work in the classroom,” said Rice-Bailey.

Since then, Rice-Bailey has completed a series of improv classes and graduated from Milwaukee’s Ampersand Theater Conservatory. She works with a team of improv artists on a regular basis to stay active in the art. She also completed a qualitative research study on using improvisation in the university classroom, and her manuscript based on this study was recently accepted for publication by the peer reviewed journal Technical Communication Quarterly.

“I now introduce improv games into other classes as a way to have my students practice interpersonal skills such as active listening, collaboration and acceptance of and elaboration on ideas—skills that they will need in school, in the workplace and in their personal lives,” said Rice-Bailey.

To give her students the full improv experience, she split the class in half so there were participants and an audience. The class played multiple improv games that challenged students to think on the spot, interact with their classmates and elaborate on ideas. The exercises ranged from group collaborations to create a “picture” with their bodies, to improvised conversations between two classmates based on suggestions from the audience.

“I was pleasantly surprised by the improv activities that were chosen since they seemed to be focused more on combining individuals’ short improvisations into a larger group result,” said sophomore user experience student Jonathan Wagenknecht. “I enjoyed creating something meaningful that felt larger than myself through improvisation in this way.”

This was the first time many of the students were exposed to improv. Getting up in front of the class and having to think of ideas on the spot can be rather intimidating. Rice-Bailey encouraged students to be authentic while playing the games, stating, “You don’t have to be funny—funny will happen!”  

From making up conversations between the vice president and president in a hot tub, to arch enemies in a McDonald’s, the class created interesting dialog that had the whole room laughing. When Rice-Bailey closed the class asking if they would do improv again, the students responded with a resounding “yes!”

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Associate Professor

Dr. Tammy Rice-Bailey

Department: Humanities, Social Science, and Communication