The Curious Case of Improv and The University of Guelph, Part 1: Improv and the Classroom

By: Jay Reid

When I graduated from the University of Guelph in 2015 with a degree in Biotechnology and Marketing, I  never imagined that my Alma Mater would become a client of a company I co-created. More surprising, is why we’d be hired and the impact it would have.

Over the last 3 years, The University of Guelph has become one of The Making-Box’s largest clients and champions. We’ve produced a dozen or so campus comedy shows (we even hosted the Pep Rally once). But live entertainment makes up a mere 10% of how we support the U of G. The other 90% is through the applied improv training we design and facilitate with staff, faculty and students.

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“Improv For Business delivered against my expectations and then some.” Kathleen Rodenburg, University of Guelph, College of Business and Economics

In this capacity, The Making-Box has helped the Ontario Agricultural College, The School of Computer Science, Counselling Services, The Office of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, The College of Business and Economics, Student Volunteer Connections, The Central Students Association and many more. Furthermore, in three different colleges we are a recurring component of the curriculum (notably, not the College of Arts).

So why are these Aggies and future computer whizzes practicing improv? Group projects.

Group work is often the bane of the academic experience. It either goes inexplicably well for no apparent reason, or magnificently bad devolving into finger-pointing and late marks. Could this be because most university classrooms, leave group cohesion up to chance? University courses rarely instill easily applicable tools to facilitate productive collaboration. While failed collaborations are certainly a great learning tool, it seems a handful of University of Guelph professors are taking a more proactive approach, and they are doing it with improv.

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"Improv provides the tools to help me communicate more effectively with other academics, and with people outside the academic bubble. This is a critical skill that is necessary for effective science communication.”
Dan Gillis, The University of Guelph, School of Computer Science.

Improv gives us framework to listen, connect and respond in way that encourage trust, flexibility and productive collaboration. Through game-based group exercises, here are some of the improv skills we offer university students to foster productive collaboration.

Listening to Understand Rather Than To Respond

Give attention. It takes practice. It’s habit for many to listen, as means of waiting for your chance to reply, retort, or get back to your own ideas. This undermines your ability attune yourself to the moment, each other and the project at hand.

Fostering a Yes Culture  

This means actively fostering a culture of acceptance. Put the critic on hold for a bit. It’s easy to focus on your own ideas and to forget empathizing with another viewpoint. Instead of immediately evaluating why something or someone is wrong, a Yes Culture looks for ways to get on the same side of the table. This does not imply instant agreement, a lack of evaluation, or an invitation to group think disaster. This is a way to check in with yourself and trust others are offering something because they see it as important.

Adopting A “Yes And…” Mindset

At elementary level this means starting a sentence with words “Yes And…”

“I think I need to take a break”
“Yes and... let’s all go together now, so we can refocus together after.”

At higher level it means respecting, appreciating the diversity of new ideas, then seeking to add to, heighten, or integrate them with what’s present. Once ideas are more fully-formed through Yes And-ing, then we can evaluate and then perhaps offer a new idea. On the contrary, if we shut down something new instantly, things become combative. With this tool, we also avoid saying “Yes But…” and “Yes, Or…” which applies instant critique, and ignore the input of others.

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“This blew other professional development sessions out the water.”
Pauline Sinclair, Director, University of Guelph, Office of Graduate and Post-Doctoral Studies  

The practice of applying improv techniques within the university classroom is not exclusive to the University of Guelph. Many top US Business School (Duke, UCLA, MIT) have improv training components. Mary Crossan of Western’s Ivey Business School is also a prominent researcher in the field and Canadian business programs within McGill, Waterloo and UBC all state they offer elective or required improv lessons.

That said, what seems unique about the University of Guelph is their appetite to apply improv in classrooms outside the scope of business. To us, that makes perfect sense. Nearly all university disciplines require group collaboration.

Professor Pro Tip: Research shows that having improv in your class could lead to better class evaluations too.


  JAY REID  is a Co-Founder of The Making-Box and a Regional Director with the Canadian Improv Games (CIG), a nationally recognized non-profit that gives high school students a platform to explore theatrical improvisation in a fun and supportive environment. Jay has had the absolute pleasure of teaching, studying and performing improv across North America as a National Trainer for the CIG, through The Making-Box’s Improv For Business program. Jay once did stand-up comedy for the former mayor of Guelph and twice wondered if she liked it.

JAY REID is a Co-Founder of The Making-Box and a Regional Director with the Canadian Improv Games (CIG), a nationally recognized non-profit that gives high school students a platform to explore theatrical improvisation in a fun and supportive environment. Jay has had the absolute pleasure of teaching, studying and performing improv across North America as a National Trainer for the CIG, through The Making-Box’s Improv For Business program. Jay once did stand-up comedy for the former mayor of Guelph and twice wondered if she liked it.