How One Educator Brought Improv to the Classroom

Aug. 29, 2016

Laura MacDonald knew from an early age that she wanted to be an educator—as a kid, she used to line up her stuffed animals and teach them. But it wasn’t until her first year of graduate school in microbiology that she knew she wanted to focus her career on teaching at the undergraduate level. Laura graduated from Hendrix College in 2009 with a B.A. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and went on to complete her Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in 2014. There weren’t many opportunities to teach at the University of Arkansas, so she reached out to her network at Hendrix and was able to guest lecture there during her graduate studies. She also started the Graduate Student Teachers of Central Arkansas group for like-minded students. As soon as she completed her Ph.D., she was hired to teach as an adjunct professor at Hendrix while also holding postdoc positions working on platelet research and cancer biology. During her interviews, Laura made it clear to her postdoctoral advisors that she would like to be an adjunct at Hendrix, and they were very supportive.

“It’s really important to be honest with your potential postdoctoral mentor up front so they understand the types of opportunities you may need as someone interested in the teaching profession, and also really critical to have their support, particularly if you want to work at an institution where research will still be a requirement,” Laura said. “They can often help you network and help you establish a project that will be feasible for the undergraduate level.” Upon completing her postdoc positions, she became a visiting assistant professor at Hendrix. When the opportunity arose this year to teach there full time as an assistant professor, she was thrilled. “Hendrix changed my life,” Laura said, referring to the quality of her undergraduate education. She’s honored to have her former professors as colleagues; “it feels like being at home.”.

Laura feels particularly passionate about teaching undergraduates because the undergraduate years are such a formative time in one’s life. “Students come to us at 17-18 years old as typical students and over the next four years, you can see the progression…they are vastly different people than they were four years ago.” This revelation for Laura called her back to the undergraduate classroom and in particular to Hendrix, a primarily undergraduate university (PUI), which focuses on undergraduate education and research.

Laura’s classroom is dynamic and engaging. Students participate in active learning exercises, including one developed by Veronica Segarra at High Point University. Laura and Veronica worked with another colleague, Amanda Solem of Hastings College, to implement the “Yes, and…” improvisational technique in their classrooms. This method involves students reviewing major topics presented by the instructor, and taking turns adding to a fundamental statement about a course concept, one sentence at a time. Laura and her collaborators use the technique to help students review the course material and make connections between the curricula in different courses. They’ve written an article on the method, which was published in the Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education.

Laura particularly likes the “Yes, and…” technique because it’s a positive, confidence-building experience that leads to students affirming one another. It also fosters peer-to-peer teaching and learning. For those who would like to try the technique in their classrooms, Laura suggested modeling the method well and giving the students time to try it and get comfortable. “I’m not a theater person,” she added, but she quickly got comfortable with the technique. She suggests giving it a try, even if you wouldn’t normally do improv. She notes that it gave her more confidence in being spontaneous, and has been a bridging tool for her to find other ways to bring theater techniques into her cell biology classroom.

Laura credits ASM for providing her with many tools and opportunities as she begins her faculty career. She was a Science Teaching Fellow (STF) in 2012-2013, where she was first introduced to the mechanics of being a good educator. As an undergrad, she remembers being in awe of her great professors and knew what great teaching looked like, but, she said, “I didn’t understand the mechanics of why they were such great educators.” STF provided her with a better understanding of the theory behind why certain teaching techniques are effective, and introduced her to the wide body of literature on student learning and discipline-based education research. Discovering the science behind learning affirmed her desire to teach; she knew that she wanted to emulate her excellent undergraduate educators, and after STF she had a better idea of how to go about doing that. Now, Laura is one of four mentors for the STF program.

She also notes that one of the most helpful things ASM has done for her is to introduce her to the annual ASM Conference for Undergraduate Educators (ASMCUE). “I walked away from that first CUE feeling so empowered, so energized and excited about teaching, I couldn’t wait to do it,” Laura said. “And it was timed perfectly because a month and a half later, I would end up walking into my first classroom.” In fact, she met her collaborators on the “Yes, and…” technique at ASMCUE, and she credits STF and ASMCUE with helping her to be successful in her first teaching assignments. “I had a plan going in, and a framework for how to do teaching,” she said. Instead of being blindly thrown into the classroom, she had a solid base upon which to intentionally build her teaching.

The next Best Practices in Curriculum Design Online Course, based on STF, will take place from January-April 2019. 

Author: Bethany Adamec

Bethany Adamec
Bethany Adamec is a Science Education Specialist at ASM, where she communicates about ASM’s work in student and faculty professional development, supports the ASM Education Board, and works with colleagues to promote evidence-based education reform.