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What Improv Taught Me About Failure: As A Teacher And Academic

Updated: May 17, 2023

Sam Houston State University

There are no mistakes, only unexpected outcomes: This big idea was taught to me during a free improv class was what I needed to hear as a doctoral student about to embark on my dissertation. I was hooked and have been doing improv ever since. Improv, or improvisational theater, is where a group of people gets together with no preparation and spontaneously performs short-form (3-5 minutes) games or long-form (10+ minutes) scenes (Seham 2001). The most unexpected outcome from learning improv was how it impacted my views on failure for myself and my students.

There are numerous ways to feel like you are failing in academics—research results that do not fit the hypothesis, a student failing your class, harsh teaching evaluations, journal rejections, or a new thing you tried in class that didn't work. The list goes on and on. In improv, the only way to "fail" is to overthink and not have fun, which reframed what failure was on a grand scale and made me start looking at academia through the same lens. What I learned about failure through improv comes back to those same two core concepts: have fun and stop overthinking. Teachers know that failure is a powerful learning tool (Bjork, Soderstrom & Little 2015), but no one wants to feel like a failure. As an emotional response, failure is a feeling experienced as "feeling a lack of accomplishment of an aim or purpose." Aim and purpose will differ from person to person based on institution requirements, family obligations, and personal interests. Generally speaking, academics face the core aims of research, teaching, and service. Improv games and scenes also have an aim and purpose. The "rules" of an improv game or scene is the structure you're aiming for, while the objective is to have fun. If you are not overthinking the "rules," there will be unexpected outcomes (i.e., mistakes), which often create a delightful moment of joy for everyone. In improv, there are no mistakes, and there is an infinite number of perfect possibilities. But allowing for an endless number of perfect possibilities means letting go of what you expected to happen and accepting the last gift given; the last thing should drive the next thing. Doing so allows the purpose to become "have fun" while still focusing on the scene's aim.

In academia, when we let go of what we expected from the classroom on a given day or the results we expected from a study, we can let what happened to drive the next choice. It is easy to overthink and over-prepare, which is not the best use of time.

As adults, we attribute fun to children's play and consider it something we give up in adulthood.

A very recent linguistic shift took place where the word "adult" became a verb and is also common as a gerund. "Adulting," the gerund version of "adult," is the word used by Millennials and iGen for all of the non-fun expectations that come with adulthood and being responsible (Johnson 2017). Another important issue in academia is the work-life balance, which is related to fun. Work-life balance is finding the joy and fun in our lives to balance out the stress we experience from research, teaching, and service demands. All my improv teachers have said, "Make the fun choice." This advice is a lesson I use in all areas of my life.

Is it fun? Yes, keep doing it. Am I not having fun? Time to change. It proves extremely helpful when it comes to teaching. Students are more engaged when the professor is having fun with the materials (Keller, Hoy, Goetz, & Frenzel, 2016), and teaching is more enjoyable when we are having fun ourselves. Even though research is a difficult process, there are moments of fun in it—results that turned out as planned or the moment when you realize you're enjoying what you're working on. If you are not finding joy in your research, find the fun again by making a correction.

In improv, it is easy for things to get out of hand. If you are not paying attention, it is easy to call someone the wrong name or walk through the invisible table your scene partner just created. These moments are hilarious to the audience but embarrassing to those in the scene, while a well-played course correction can be delightful to all. No one wants a student to point out a typo in a slide or correct us when we mispronounce a word; it's embarrassing. One form of a course correction is to acknowledge what happened immediately. "Proof that no one is perfect" or "attention to detail is not my strong point" are two ways of addressing what just happened. Another course correction faced in academia is the choice of staying on a path that isn't working or changing direction. To know you need a course correction means listening to what is going on with your classroom and yourself. Are you or your students bored? Does it seem like you are struggling in your research or classroom? A course correction is usually more work, but it brings the fun back to teaching and research. When you are having fun, it feels less like work (Bakke 2010).

In the improv classroom they say, "This is the place to practice and see what works." This is the attitude I now bring to my classroom. Students are there to learn a skill and practice it. I tell my students, "It's okay to fail here in this room. You are learning something new, and if you don't get it the first time, that's okay. You get feedback and get to try again. You fail here, so you don't have to fail in the real world at your first job." I remove the fear of failure so they can try new things and exercise creative problem-solving. It does not always work the way I expected, but I am frequently surprised and delighted by what my students come up with. The classroom is low-stakes practice for real life, but too often our students view it as a high-stakes endeavor. Another lesson from improv is, "Don't give fear a place to live." Fear takes up space in our cognitive processes, and if fear is living in our students' minds, it is hard to fit the important information there.

Improv changed how I viewed failure by making me rethink what it means to fail. First, I remind myself that there are no mistakes, only unexpected outcomes. Second, have fun and stop overthinking. Third, the last thing drives the next thing and course-correct when needed. Fourth, our classrooms are low-stakes practice for high-stakes real-world endeavors. Lastly, we all have goals we need to aim for to get tenure or promotion, but maybe the purpose of those goals should be to have fun.

Note: Special thanks to The Institution Theater in Austin, Texas, and Beta Theater in Houston.

Discussion Questions

1. What parts of teaching or research lack fun for you? What parts are fun?

2. For one aspect that is not fun, what might you do to course correct to add fun into your teaching or research?

3. Do you view the classroom as high stakes or low stakes? Why?


Bakke, D. W. (2010). Joy at work: A revolutionary approach to fun on the job. PVG.

Bjork, E. L., Soderstrom, N. C., & Little, J. L. (2015). Can multiple-choice testing induce desirable difficulties? Evidence from the laboratory and the classroom. The American journal of psychology, 128(2), 229-239.

Johnson, A. (2017). Adulting is hard: Anxiety and insecurity in the millennial generation’s coming of age process. Wellesley College Digital Reposittory retreived October 20, 2020

Keller, M. M., Hoy, A. W., Goetz, T., & Frenzel, A. C. (2016). Teacher enthusiasm: Reviewing and redefining a complex construct. Educational Psychology Review, 28(4), 743-769.

Seham, A. E. (2001). Whose improv is it anyway? Beyond Second City. Univ. Press of Mississippi.

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Todd Zakrajsek
Todd Zakrajsek
Oct 23, 2020

For additional reading, Sean Camp of USU recommends this book. on the topic of engaging students with theatre.


Excellent article Katherine. I believe that play has an important place in instructor engagement. Especially today, in the time of online burnout and unexpected consequences, instructor engagement will shape student engagement. I would like to share a couple of thoughts on the subject:

Getting Comfortable with Failure and Vulnerability to Facilitate Learning and Innovation in the Game of School

Move over, Mario, game to engage students in learning

Immersive Feedback Environments for Learning and Growth

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