The Power Of Humor And Improvisation In The Classroom
Roz Trieber, MS, CHES

Why are student’s eyes glazed over or rolled back in their heads as the teacher talks? It is no accident. Students are not listening, they are not engaged in the learning process, they are thinking about after school games, or how they can manage to pass without studying. Let’s face it; many classroom experiences are less than motivating!

Educational approaches have often been thought of as overly serious, inflexible, stoic, and even sometimes joyless, especially in the college classroom. Scripted lectures continue to predominate as the teaching method of choice. 

Effective communication involves more than the spoken word. Speakers need to know and apply the Mehrabian Model of Communication (1981). Mehrabian established this classic statistic for the effectiveness of spoken communications:

What does this tell us?

Evidence-based research demonstrates collaborative and creative approaches (such as humor and improvisation) result in an engaged, participating student, increased higher order thinking (such as contrasting and evaluating), individual and group accountability. In addition, humor and improvisation strategies enhance class discussion and role play, build teamwork, encourage risk taking, improve critical thinking, and stimulate creativity (Berk, 1996, 2002, 2003; Gardner, 1993; Goleman, 1998; Moshavi, 2001). Improvisation exercises and humor strategies are tools you can add to your arsenal of teaching and speaking techniques increasing student awareness of problems and ideas fundamental to their intellectual development.

Dare to go where few teachers have gone before and try any one of the following innovative ways of having your message heard.  

  1. Warnings on handouts or power point presentations such as: “You could be a winner! No purchase necessary; details inside.”
  2. One - liners on transparencies or on handouts such as:
    “Why do fat chance and slim chance mean the same thing?”
    “Energizer Bunny arrested and charged with battery.”
  3. Create parodies from popular TV Sitcoms, Broadway Musicals, and from music your audience is listening to now. Imagine opening with a parody of Star Trek. The room is darkened, you have a flash light on as you enter reciting your objectives using the theme of the “Final Frontier and taking your students where few have gone before!” You play the music from Star Trek as you speak the last words of your parody. Your class is “putty in your hands!”
  4. Use the “Top Ten” principle for any subject you are teaching. Make them humorous as you emphasize the most important points of your lesson. You could have:
    “Top 10 Ways To Alienate Your Class Mates”
    “The Top 10 Ways To Prevent Your Best Friend From Using Drugs!”
  5. Rap It Up. Have students write “Rap or Poems” about the most important points you made in your class or presentation. Have volunteers read or perform their creation. Laughter will be pouring out of the doors and windows; not to mention the lesson will never be forgotten!
  6. Introduce Improvisational Theater Techniques to the Classroom. Improvisation has been defined as intuition guiding action in a spontaneous way. 

Freeze Tag: An Improvisational Approach to Class Discussion
(modified from Moshavi, 2001).

(A Freeze Tag example is described below; adapted from Moshavi, 2001).


Begin by telling the class you’d like to have them explore a specific management theory or concept (of your choosing) through an improvisational exercise called freeze tag. (For instance, if you have been discussing theories of motivation, you might have the exercise focus on goal setting theory (Locke, 1968).) Then, ask the class for a place of business. Accept the first response that reasonably fits the request. Typical responses are banks, stores, restaurants, hospitals, and factories. Next, ask for a type of business relationship between two people that are employed in this setting (rather than for the physical positions requested in the theatre version). Responses are often based on the place of business suggested and include such relationships as: employee/supervisor, bank manager/teller, doctor/nurse, etc. 

After restating the theory, place of business and the type of relationship, tell the class that, based on this information, two student volunteers will create a scene. Ask for two volunteers. Explain that when the scene begins to stagnate or the student volunteers begin to falter, someone in the class should stop the action by yelling “freeze.” Let them know that in your experience, this faltering often occurs within 15 to 30 seconds and almost always within one minute.

The person who yells freeze then makes his/her way to the front of the room, taps one of the two student volunteers on the shoulder, and replaces him/her “on stage.” The two remaining students then pick up from the point where the previous scene stopped and continue to advance the action until the scene is once again frozen and a student volunteer is replaced. (Note: The instructor should be prepared to call out the first “freeze” and join a scene if students are initially hesitant.) After there have been four or five “freezes,” stop the action and ask for a new place of business and a new type of business relationship and repeat the exercise. This allows the class to apply the chosen theory in a different business context.

Following these exercises, the instructor generally asks questions that enhance the learning. Sample questions include the following:


Did we successfully meet the objectives of the game?

What made it successful or unsuccessful?

What were their biggest fears?

What insights did you gain?

What’s important to the group? Rules or flow?

The instructor then reviews the key points of the content material presented in the exercise and leads a brief discussion of its application to class objectives and how students would use principles in their personal or professional lives.

Freeze Tag Example

Topic suggested by instructor: Equity Theory
Suggestion from Class for a Place of Business: Factory floor
Suggestion from Class for a Type of Business Relationship: Co-workers

Student 1: I can’t believe that you got a 10% raise and I only got a 5% raise.

Student 2: I know, it’s amazing that the boss thinks I’m so valuable.

Student 1: I wish the boss thought I was valuable.

Student 2: It’s definitely a bummer.

Student 3: FREEZE! (Student 3 taps Student 1 on the shoulder and replaces her) So what’s your secret to success?

Student 2: Well, I’m constantly kissing up to him.

Student 3: I’d love to hear some of your tips.

Student 2: The first thing I do is, I um....try and .....

Student 4: FREEZE! (student 4 taps student 2 on the shoulder and replaces him) Well, the first thing I do is grunt loudly when I’m fixing the machinery to make him think I’m giving 100%.

Student 3: Wow, that’s a great idea.

Student 4: I also deliberately spill some grease on my pants and rub it on my face each afternoon. Makes it seem like I’m so busy I don’t even have time to clean myself off.

Student 3: So what you’re saying is that even though you don’t work any harder, the boss thinks your level of input and output is higher than the rest of us.

Student 4: I guess that’s what I’m saying.

Student 3: Interesting.

Student 4: Very.

Student 5: FREEZE! (Student 5 taps student 4 on the shoulder and replaces him.)


As teachers, you can use these techniques with your classes to demonstrate how much content information they were able to process as well as demonstrating critical thinking skills, reducing the fear of making mistakes, and gaining confidence. In addition you and your class will have had fun learning with each other. The best part about this technique: neither you or your students need a degree in acting!


Berk, R. A. (1996). Student ratings of 10 strategies for using humor in college teaching. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 7(3), 71–92.

Berk, R. A. (2002). Humor as an instructional defibrillator: Evidence-based techniques in teaching and assessment. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Berk, R. A. (2003). Professors are from Mars, Students are from Snickers: How to write and deliver humor in the classroom and in professional presentations. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Gardner, H. (1993). Multiple intelligences: The theory in practice. New York: Basic Books.

Goleman, D. (1998). Working with emotional intelligence. New York: Bantam Books.

Mehrabian, A. (1981). Silent messages: Implicit communication of emotions and attitudes (2 nd ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Moshavi, Dan. (2001). "Yes And”: Introducing Improvisational Theatre
Techniques to the Management Classroom," Journal of Management Education, 25(4), 437-449.

Roz Trieber works with organizations to reduce stress and increase productivity using humor and improvisation. For more information on Roz ’s speaking programs, books, cd's and learning programs contact HUMORFUSION at 410.998.9585 or (

© 2005 Copyright by Roz Trieber and Trieber Associates, Inc.

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