Teaching Tips

Acting Lessons For Teachers Using Performance Skills in the Classroom

By Cathy Sargent Mester and Robert T. Tauber

Who among us has not come back from a class or two (usually around mid-semester) and sighed, "my students just didn't seem with it today?" It is very disheartening because we feel at a loss to remedy the situation. The good news is that not only is this situation not terminal, but also that you and I as teachers do have options-the class can be saved! The key to doing so often lies in the craft of the actor.

Student Motivation
We are right to be concerned about student motivation for certainly no one can learn if not motivated to attend to the subject matter. Remember, Benjamin Bloom's taxonomy puts valuing information after attending to it. The factors affecting student motivation include both elements specific to each particular student as well as elements of classroom climate. It is the latter over which the teacher has some control. We cannot change the students' family situation, personal goals, intelligence, diet or sleep habits; but we can change the atmosphere for learning that is created in our classrooms. We can accomplish that by using a tool proven successful by so many hard-working faculty members-teacher enthusiasm.

The Pedagogy of Teacher Enthusiasm
Enthusiasm as a teaching tool has often been questioned by educators who perceive enthusiasm to smack of insincerity or a lack of seriousness about one's academic endeavor. If you think of enthusiasm as disingenuous clowning then you are right to conclude it does not belong in the classroom. But that's not what we mean by enthusiasm--rather, we refer to allowing yourself to convey the true zest for learning that you feel. You are fascinated by your subject matter or you wouldn't be teaching it! To help unlock that fascination and zest, a few expressive, creative devices (learned from the world of acting) can be used and in so doing, will catch your students' attention and facilitate learning.

Vocal Animation
First among these expressive tools is vocal animation. A teacher's personal infatuation with his/her subject matter will be evident in natural variations in vocal tone: volume, pitch, rate and quality. If you have developed a habit of allowing only minimal variation in your voice, it is more difficult for the students to realize how much you value your subject matter and, therefore, less likely that they will value it. Greater overall vocal vigor then, invites students to tune in to this very exciting material to be learned.

In addition to attracting student attention, changes in your vocal tone can serve as signposts drawing the students to the most important elements in your commentary. Particular vocal devices in the "signpost" category include:

  • Setting off a phrase or word with strategic pauses;
  • Slowing down the articulation of the most important word or phrase;
  • Speaking the most important words at a markedly lower pitch;
  • Using rising inflection to signal the climactic point; or
  • Speaking in a noticeably quieter tone to make the students listen more closely.

A teacher can develop greater vocal vigor and come to use it naturally by the same means you would develop physical vigor-by exercise! Our voices are a resource that can be perpetually ready to serve our needs if we practice stretching our expressiveness through taped vocal exercises such as those used by professional singers. Such exercises need not consume much time since they can be done while doing something else like driving, vacuuming, watching television or playing with your dog. For instance, try reciting a memorized poem or song lyrics in a James Earl Jones or Vanessa Redgrave style or to a different beat. By regularly stretching your vocal expression, it will become more naturally varied and strong, allowing you to develop a classroom tone that can help to hold and focus your students' attention.

Physical Animation
Similarly, a physically dynamic teacher using the tools of eye contact, facial expression, gestures and postural changes commands the class' attention. With eye contact, for instance, teachers establish that they have something important to say and trust the students to attend to it. Gestures and expressions that reinforce, emphasize, encourage and clarify are tools that any teacher can benefit from using.

In this respect, our profession can learn from that of the stage actor who realizes that the playwright's written words alone convey only part of the intended message-the message is completed by gestures and facial expressions that add the all-important connotation. For instance, when asking a question of the class, you should have a look of positive expectation on your face and your gestures should be open, signaling to the students that you really want to hear their answers. The teacher whose arms are crossed while awaiting an answer is perceived by the students as intimidating, not encouraging.

The most beneficial step you can take to improve your physical animation is to videotape yourself teaching. Set the recorder up and just let it run so that you capture a full class without the intimidation of having a cameraperson following your every move. Then look at the tape and ask yourself if you could stay alert and interested during this class. If not, try one of the following:

  • Stretching exercises before going to the class;
  • Minimizing the extent of any lecture notes to which you may refer;
  • Using visual aids and referencing them with appropriate gestures; and
  • Most importantly, concentrating mentally on the intrigue of the subject matter allowing your natural exuberance to reach out to the students.

If your tape revealed yourself as a dynamic speaker, Bravo!

Using the Classroom Space
One of the easiest things we can do to revitalize our students' attention is to use the entire space of the classroom as our stage, rather than just the lectern or the front of the room. Some students like to melt anonymously into the back wall or hide behind the football lineman so that they don't have to feel involved in your communication. We can't let that happen!

Our choices are two: either move the students by rearranging their seating periodically or move ourselves. The latter is easier! Think of the whole classroom as space you can use. The instructor, for instance, who explained the concept of right-brained versus left-brained by first standing in the middle of one side of the room and then walking across to the middle of the opposite side not only reinforced the concept visually, but also held the students' attention by moving into their space.

As you respond to student comments, move toward the area of the room where the speaker is. Such movement conveys that you are mentally engaging the speaker and captures the visual attention of all the other students in that section of the room. Regular movement of this sort is particularly important in larger classes when we need to work harder to relate to all of the students, encouraging them to feel a personal involvement and responsibility in the class--a motivation to learn!

For many instructors of psychology, the use of props may be second nature. It's a good thing it is because props are great attention-getters! Of course, they also clarify and make messages memorable. A colleague distributes modeling clay to her students to they can build models of the brain rather than just talk about its anatomy; another uses magazine ads to illustrate gender stereotyping in society; and yet a third involves small children in the class on developmental stages. These are all great devices and we have all experienced their positive benefits in capturing student attention and opening their minds to learning.

These are a few reminders of the do's and don'ts of using props. The criterion in every instance is to select and use props that enhance the lesson, not detract from it.

  • Do select props large enough for all to see at once;
  • Do keep the prop simple enough so that students clearly realize its intent;
  • Do rehearse with the prop to make sure it works as intended; and
  • Do make sure the prop is clearly pertinent to the lesson.
  • Don't use props that have to be passed among the students to be appreciated;
  • Don't show the prop any earlier than or any longer than when you are talking about it;
  • Don't use live animals unless absolutely necessary; and
  • Don't use props that require significant darkening of the room for full visibility.

That last don't is specifically applicable to overhead transparencies, slides and computer graphics. You should never transfer all of your notes to slides and just talk through them for an entire class period. In doing so, you lose that vital direct relationship with the students and create a nonresponsive environment, both of which are highly demotivating. Instead, if you want to use transparencies or Power Point slides, use just a few to highlight the most important points of the lesson, each with just a few words per slide to encourage the students to interact with you as you explain instead of just focusing their entire concentration on copying the notes. Again, the goal of using slides, or any prop, is to stimulate the students' attention and motivation for learning.

Another reflection of our enthusiasm for the active process of learning is the occasional use of humor. In the form of a pun, joke, anecdote or cartoon, supportive humor can enliven a lesson. One award-winning psychology professor explains that he often makes reference to his imaginary family (all of whom have funny names and even funnier occupations) as examples of particular concepts. His experience has been that the students remember the concept longer if illustrated by the antics of his imaginary cousin Orval, the tuba tuner, than the same antics of his sister Nancy, a pediatrician.

If you are not comfortable with your skill as a humorist, it's best not to go out too far on this limb. You can, however, very safely begin a file of humorous stories or cartoons you find pertinent to your field for use on transparencies or to begin a particular dayís lesson. To be effective, the humor need only be pertinent, brief, tasteful and nonhostile. My quick retelling of our dog's misadventures as a chaser of chipmunks never fails to strike a chord with the students-they can relate to the incident, find it easy to stay tuned to a funny dog story and easily internalize its point about the dangers of mistaking illusion for reality. Thus, the humor motivates their attention and stimulates their learning.

Suspense and Surprise
A surefire way to avoid student boredom is to keep them in suspense. Like the cliffhanger endings on Friday afternoon soap operas, a suspenseful or surprising classroom condition makes the students eagerly anticipate its resolution. Students wanting to hear more is motivation personified.

Suspense can be accomplished by simple things like:

  • Keeping a particular day's activities secret;
  • Asking students to do an assignment seemingly irrelevant to the class;
  • Announcing a pop quiz; or
  • Masking the props set up as class begins.

Any one of these will make the class curious enough to stay tuned.

The suspense and surprise could, however, be a more elaborate concoction such as the instructor who taught almost a full class period on the topic of fear, gave the students fifteen minutes of free time and then, after only five minutes, looked up angrily and yelled "Shut up!" He then proceeded to debrief their reactions to his surprising outburst as representative of the body's natural emotional and physical fear response. This example of enthusiastic teaching was shared by a student three years after the event-its vividness in his memory is testimony to its strategic impact as a motivating device.

Role Playing
The most dramatic of the devices discovered in our research of enthusiastic teaching was that of role playing by the teacher. Involving students in role play exercises is fairly common, particularly in the social sciences; but role playing by the teacher is less frequent and quite powerful in motivating student attention.

Role playing requires fairly extensive planning potentially involving costuming, makeup, staging and scripting. The result can be quite riveting as students see a leading figure in their field of study coming alive before them, perhaps even engaging them in dialogue. Costuming can be as easy as wearing a special hat or as elaborate as coming to class in full Elizabethan or colonial dress. Psychology instructors have been known to portray Skinner, Rogers, Maslow or the characters of the famous prisoners' dilemma, all to the memorable impact on students.

While this strategy may be suited especially well to a limited number of classes, there is one role we can all try to develop for the benefit of our students--the role of an enthusiastic teacher.

The Lesson of Enthusiasm
To get started on the path to achieving a more productively enthusiastic teaching persona, you need to analyze your present teaching style. This can be accomplished either by asking a trusted colleague to observe your teaching or by videotaping yourself. If the analysis suggests room for improvement, the best and easiest place to begin is with the exercises suggested earlier to enhance vocal and physical expressiveness since these tools can be used in any teaching situation. Stretch your voice! Work with Cyrano. Do Bergerac's soliloquy "Call that a nose," for instance. It is also appropriate to begin to incorporate movement about the room early in your efforts as that also is a tool that can be used anywhere and requires a comfortably small change in your current teaching habits. As you develop ease with these more enthusiastic strategies, work your way up to experimenting with props, surprises, humor and role playing.

Many of us, through either being so new to the profession that we lack confidence or so experienced that we lack sustained energy, can benefit from mastering the role of a motivating persona in the classroom. Today's generation of college students is not so strongly motivated by the sheer excitement of learning as previous generations-we have to "win them over." Winners of teaching awards at large and small colleges and universities have testified again and again that what works for them is accompanying their mastery of content with a set of dramatic devices that convey sufficient enthusiasm to establish themselves as credible and their subject matter as fascinating. As one award-winning instructor put it, "I use these strategies because I choose to make the learning environment come alive and make the lessons learned last beyond the next test!"

Recommended for Further Reading
Browne, M. N., and Keeley, S. M. (1985). Achieving excellence: Advice to new teachers. College Teaching, 33(2), 78-83.

Dembo, M. H. (1988). Applying educational psychology in the classroom. New York: Longman.

Javidi, M., Downs, V.C., & Nussbaum, J. F. (1988). A comparative analysis of teachers' use of dramatic style behaviors at higher and secondary education levels. Communication Education, 37, 278-288.

Lowman, J. (1995). Mastering the techniques of teaching (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Tauber, R. T., & Mester, C. S. (1994). Acting lessons for teachers: Using performance skills in the classroom. Westport, CN: Praeger.

CATHY SARGENT MESTER is Senior Lecturer in Speech Communication at Penn State at Erie, The Behrend College. Her 28 years of teaching have included well over 200 sections of general education courses for undergraduates as well as numerous workshops and seminars for educators and managers. She is the recipient of the college's Excellence in Academic Advising Award and the Benjamin A. Lane Award for Service.

ROBERT T. TAUBER is Professor Emeritus of Education at Penn State at Erie, The Behrend College. Recently retired after 30 years of teaching at the high school and college level, Dr. Tauber is the author of six books on classroom management and communication. He has received the college's award for Excellence in Research as well as national distinction for his Psychology of Discipline distance education course which won the 1996 Helen Adams Award for Excellence in Collegiate Independent Study.

TEACHING TIPS provides the latest in practical advice on the teaching of psychology and is aimed at current and future faculty of two- and four-year colleges and universities. Teaching Tips informs teachers about the content, methods, and profession of teaching. Send article ideas or draft submissions directly to Baron Perlman, Teaching Tips Editor, Dept. of Psychology, Univ. of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, Oshkosh, WI 54901-8601; 920-424-2300; Fax:920-424-1204; or perlman@uwosh.edu.

Chief Editor
Baron Perlman
University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh
Lee McCann and Susan McFadden
University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh