Improv in business classes touches on experiential education

July 7, 2009 at 12:09 PM

As you can see, we continue to connect experiential learning notions to learning opportunities that might not to appear at first glance to be experiential, such as the entrepreneurship teaching techniques in Jamie’s classroom about which she and Jim write below.  Of course we believe they may well be connected because they drive the limbic circuits of the “other lobe of the brain” and so are relevant to this conversation.

-Jim and Shwen


Improv in business classes touches on experiential education


By Jamie Rotman ’91 and Jim Stellar


Jamie was a student in my lab at Northeastern University quite a few years ago. After spending many years in Hollywood she started her own business and guest lecturers as a successful entrepreneur at another college in the Massachusetts area.  I asked her to write a small piece about the classes she teaches and how she motivates her students.  This exercise is entirely in class (so some would think that there is no experiential education involved).  But look below at what she wrote and see how she is reaching beyond the facts and theories to try to engage the students, particularly through improvisational exercises, what she calls improv.


For the entrepreneurship classes, I teach a class that has to do with giving presentations.  How do the students present their material in the best way possible?  I teach them how to connect with the material, how to dress, how to look up and learn their presentations and not read their papers or notes. If it is early in the semester I give them advice about their teams and how they can be easy and not so easy to work with and what to look out for.  I compare baking cookies to presenting because of the clear steps needed in both cases and most students can relate to baking cookies!    


I think with all people and students there are those that put their best foot forward and those that don’t.  In these classes after I’ve worked with the students I most often see an improvement, which makes them so happy because they can see the difference.  Just the students dressing better makes each of them connect with their material and audience on a more professional level. They themselves have more confidence. 


Teaching them how to connect with the material makes their presentation come alive.  I often find that the improv exercises I do manage to validate and boost their self-esteem.  They are usually so scared to make a mistake that they do and then they feel defeated and don’t try as hard next time.  When we do the exercises and have fun all of a sudden getting them to improv their projects and papers without notes is easy and they start to have fun with it.  It’s exciting to watch that transformation in just a few hrs.  Imagine if I had few class sessions!!


The other lobe of the brain aspect that we see in the improv exercise relates to creativity, which was discussed in an earlier blog.  This depends on the ability to think fast and not analyze each logical step explicitly.  This is said to be why it took many years after impressive computers were built for one to finally beat a human at chess.  The computer had to look at every move 5 or 6 moves deep to see what move to make next.  The human, it is believed, walls off entire avenues of such exploration. 


Entrepreneurs will do the same thing.  They will look at the situation from all business angles, numbers, ROI, and analyses but in the end their decision will only be partly based on those things. The other will be on their ‘gut feeling’.  Do I trust this person? Does he or she meet my customer care needs?  Do I have a good feeling about this product that I want to sell?   So many questions that an entrepreneur will make every day and much depend on their feelings. 


Neuroeconomics is a newish field where people are asked to make decisions often about buying something while their brains are being scanned.  The brain areas that light up are often what we call limbic – that is involved with emotions.  That is why we ended our conversation with Jamie using the word “feelings.”  But notice these feelings are not the emotions themselves (happiness, sadness, etc.).  They are logical decisions made in the computational circuits that provide a summary judgment on whether the process feels right.  That judgment accompanies the analytic decision.  Remember Alan Greenspan, before the economic downturn, saying that the stock market was affected by “irrational exuberance?”  It was more than profit-loss statements or earnings ratios.  Now we talk about the need for “confidence” in consumer spending as well as technical fixes to things like the credit markets.  The facts are there in the market, just like they are there in the classroom.  But the conclusions economically and the way the students think seem to depend on more than that.  They depend on this limbic or “other lobe” thinking. 


So, why don’t more colleges and universities make explicit programs to serve this kind of learning in the classroom and beyond (e.g. as in cooperative education programs) like they do regularly for course content, curriculum design, prerequisites, syllabus structure, and so on?

The Music of Thought and Emotion: clinical interaction in social work

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