How to Play in the College Classroom in a Pandemic, and Why You Should

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By Sarah Rose Cavanagh

Four years ago, on the day we inaugurated Donald J. Trump as president, I was wrapping up a speaking engagement for my book on how to use the science of emotion to energize the college classroom. One of the people waiting to chat with me was a physicist who said that, while he was receptive to my ideas about motivating students through emotional engagement, he was worried about just the opposite: too much emotional engagement in every sphere of our lives. Using physics principles to make his point, he argued that — by firing up supporters and detractors alike — Trump had elevated the emotional temperature of the entire country to a metaphorical tipping point where everything was, well, melting.

I have thought about his observation often in the intervening years, but no more so than in 2020, when I would log onto Twitter after a big news drop about the election or the pandemic — see the flames, the outrage, the end-days predictions — and log right back out. Yet my arguments about tending to the emotional climate of our classrooms have never centered on riling people up. Indeed, my research has focused on how to help students manage their anxiety, boredom, and frustration in order to home in on the goal of learning.

Right now, we could all do well to simmer down a bit, but that doesn’t mean we ignore the role of emotion in our teaching. In fact, there is a way to pursue those aims and maximize student learning, and that is by introducing a sense of lighthearted play to our academic proceedings. Here’s why:

Reason No. 1: Play is one of the most natural ways we learn. Across the animal kingdom, organisms play as a way to test possibilities, strengthen behavioral repertoires, and explore possible future scenarios. Pandas roll and tumble, crows slide down slippery slopes, dogs wrestle. Birds that play have larger brains and longer lives than those that don’t. So much of play is bound up in uncertainty, in intentionally toying with having your movement restricted, your balance challenged, your status upended. It is how animals learn to cope with real-life uncertain times and threats.

Human beings exhibit those same traits and behaviors, but in more complex and abstract ways. When children play, they mime adult behaviors and experiment with social status, but they also test out potential scenarios and prepare for a loss of resources. Even in adults, you might consider our obsession with fictional stories — on the page or on screens — as playful, toying with multiple possible unfolding futures.

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Kelly Leonard, executive director of learning and applied improvisation at the famed Second City, for a new book project. At any given time, he said, thousands of students are signed up to be trained in improvisation through Second City’s professional-services arm — but very few of them intend on a career in the theater. They have realized, as he has through his long and storied career, that improv and other forms of play are not parlor tricks or mere warm-ups for acting but rather what he calls “human-being practice.” How to listen, how to be vulnerable, how to make choices quickly on uncertain terrain, how to work as an ensemble rather than only as an individual — it’s all part of being playful and learning to play together as a group.

Play is also one of the most cognitively demanding things we can do. It requires projecting yourself into the future, preparing for a range of possible scenarios, figuring out social partners’ mental states, and adjusting on the fly to new information. In fact, more than a few voices — noting the decline of unstructured play in American childhood — have argued that this could have implications for children’s mental health.

Play is an integral part of learning, and thus would be a useful tool for faculty members to employ in their classrooms at any time. But in the present moment, when so much about life feels uncertain and deadly serious, play may have special benefits.

Reason No. 2: Play offers mental breaks from dire news. Play may be particularly needed when the news and people’s social-media feeds and daily conversations are so filled with danger and threat. Our bodies, and the nervous systems that operate them, are not designed to endure constant states of alarm.

Robert M. Sapolsky articulated that argument so well in his classic best-selling bookWhy Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. Human beings evolved to have two branches of our sympathetic nervous system — one to kick us into gear when we need to flee from threats or fight to defend resources, and one to operate the rest of the time, digesting, repairing, and relaxing. The two work in contrasting and complementary ways to govern our responses to our environmental context. But your fight-or-flight system was designed to be a flexible and occasional response to a brief bout of intense activity — say, to flee from a lion — not to be on a constant, low-simmering burn of activity with frequent flare-ups every time you check the news.

Ordinarily I’m a huge fan of drawing connections between current events and classroom work as a way to draw meaning and engage student interest: Look, class, this information is not esoteric and limited to the confines of the laboratory or to dusty old scrolls! It has relevance! An entire literature on what is called “utility/value interventions” in the classroom demonstrates the usefulness of this approach for student learning and motivation.

But in 2020-21, I find myself reluctant to lean on that strategy overmuch — out of a personal weariness with the news and a reluctance to pour more stress on my students. A professor of psychology, I instead look forward each day to greeting my students and escaping with them to a world of brains and dream interpretation, considering topics like why both dogs and babies can be confused by balls that run under the couch and disappear.

I enter a state of flow when I’m teaching, and when I am able to play with ideas rather than portend doom, my work is that much more enjoyable. No doubt plenty of students are worn out by confronting all of the challenges of this unprecedented time and then logging onto Zoom or dragging their masked selves into a distanced classroom, only to be asked to confront those challenges some more as their professors rattle their sabers of doom. I hope that my pleasure invites students to share in the joy of intellectual discovery, and a large literature on the many ways that human emotions are contagious in the classroom suggests that this suspicion holds weight.

So how, exactly, do you “play” in the college classroom? More to the point, how do you do so in ways that are academically, emotionally, and pedagogically sound, as well as enjoyable for you and your students? Here are some strategies:

Use improv “warm-up” activities. The first rule of icebreakers is that everyone hates icebreakers. But a sea of unknown faces who might judge your every utterance — whether in a physical classroom or over Zoom — is not conducive to feeling as if you want to take intellectual risks. One of the most tried-and-true methods to jar us all out of this frozen social compliance is to loosen up our social joints — to play a little with those strangers and get to know them as actual people with quirky habits, fun nicknames, or interesting hobbies.

Faculty members can tap into a huge list of open-source icebreaker materials, thanks to the pedagogical experts Maha Bali, Autumm Caines, and Mia Zamora, who worked with OneHE and Equity Unbound to post this resource online. The list calls them “community building” or “warm-up” activities, which sounds so much better than “icebreaker.”

Move it, move it. There is joy in movement. It is no coincidence that a lot of improv activities involve movement — getting up and around, passing props, gesturing, acting out various roles. Movement gets the blood moving, the heart pumping, and raises arousal, which is good for memory, attention renewal, and focus.

I’m not suggesting you organize an in-class dance party. In the classroom this can be as simple as calling students to the whiteboard to contribute to a list, or to different corners of the room to brainstorm on poster boards. Here are some other options:

  • Use a snowball discussion technique. I have found it has great effects on the energy level in the room. I ask students to pair off with a neighbor and answer some discussion prompts (or their own self-generated discussion questions). Then the pair gets up together, crosses to another area of the classroom, and makes a foursome to share their diverse responses.
  • At Cult of Pedagogy, Jennifer Gonzalez has some wonderful slides supporting a few methods of building movement into class discussions, including one called This-or-That. It employs a You-Must-Choose frame that requires students to move to a side of the room to indicate their opinions on a topic. The existing slides have fun icebreaker questions, but I like to modify them to ask students to take stands on course-related issues.
  • A new book out this spring by Susan Hrach, Minding Bodies: How Physical Space, Sensation, and Movement Affect Learning, makes the case for the value of movement and offers many practical tips for using it in the college classroom.
  • On Zoom, of course, movement is tougher. But you could encourage everyone to take stretch breaks, get a drink, or find a scavenger-hunt item in their home.

Introduce a little levity. I ask students in my “Introduction to Psychology” course to grapple with complex issues, such as confirmation bias in media consumption, implicit racial bias, and controversies about new psychiatric diagnoses. But I also try to lighten things up — for example, I illustrate observational research methods with Alex Horowitz’s study of how people in parks talk to their dogs (“You are so cute and so fluffy. And worth money! I could marry you.”), and I ask students to test (and report back) on tried-and-true methods of inducing lucid dreams before they go to bed at night.

I am in the middle of a qualitative research study in which my honors student and I are interviewing college students about their best and worst learning experiences in college. We’re still in the data-collection and data-analysis phase, but I can tell you that students are motivated by professors who use humor, who bring their own fascination with the content to the fore, and who find ways to introduce a sense of playful intellectual exploration to the classroom.

Be creative, yet careful, when you tie in to current events. Connecting course content to some news event is a proven way to heighten student interest in the class. And you would be doing students an intellectual disservice to avoid talking about the 2020 presidential election in a political-science class, or about the Black Lives Matter protests following the killing of George Floyd in a sociology course. But there are ways to introduce and grapple with highly charged topics without awkwardly putting marginalized undergraduates in the spotlight or encouraging high levels of tension between students with opposing political views.

For instance, in a unit on media literacy and disinformation in my intro-psychology course, I talk about the “four moves” paradigm (a four-step process to check the reliability of online information). Rather than start with a potentially heated, controversial topic, I first ask students to use the four moves to test whether or not it is true that zoos employ people whose entire job is to prop upright penguins that have tipped over watching planes pass overhead. Once students have mastered the moves, we turn to more serious examples of disinformation and their devastating effects. The idea is to balance light and dark, and to respect the strong reactions that some students may have to particular topics.

Interrupt the routine. Play involves uncertainty, but it is a friendly sort of uncertainty that invites curiosity. While it is good to have a regular rhythm in your course, occasionally interrupting the routine may be playful and energizing. It may also renew students’ waning attention.

Try “ungrading,” or at least low-stakes grading. It is pretty hard for students to feel a sense of intellectual levity if they are terrified that their entire grade in your course hinges on a few high-stakes exams. In that scenario, they are most likely to work hard to feed you verbatim exactly what you fed them, deadening creativity and learning alike.

So mix it up. Create many differentlow-stakes opportunities for students to demonstrate their understanding of the material and their creative grappling with the content, rather than focusing on a few big tests. Or try your hand at “ungrading,” one of many out-of-the-box methods that faculty members have developed in recent years to reform how we evaluate students’ work.

Know when to take a break. Once in a while in class, drop everything. In graduate school I taught a few courses as a visiting instructor. Everything had been going swimmingly, but one afternoon I showed up to my usually reliable classroom and couldn’t get the LCD projector to work. My entire lecture and associated activities were all on slides, and I was still enough of a rookie teacher to find the idea of going off-script somewhat terrifying.

It was at that three-quarter point of the semester when everyone was overloaded and strung tight, and it was also one of those New England early-spring days when the sun warms up and the breeze is light and you get the sudden sense that winter is about to break and all the promises of spring and summer are about to unfurl. I told them about the projector and called off class. I have never felt emotional contagion more tangibly than in that moment — a wave of excitement, gratitude, and relief spread throughout the room with such force I rocked back on my heels. People clapped, shouted.

Occasionally give your students a break. Give yourself a break. Breaks are important.

The acting coach Keith Johnstone writes, “most teachers are afraid to give ‘I am playing’ signals to their students. If they would, their work would become a constant pleasure.” Play is intellectually rigorous. But it can also bring joy to the classroom. In this moment of multiple elongated crises, I believe that we need all the joy we can get.

Sarah Rose Cavanagh is an associate professor of psychology at Assumption University and associate director for grants and research at the university’s teaching center. She is the author of The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion. Her new book is Hivemind: Thinking Alike in a Divided World. You can find her on Twitter @SaRoseCav and her website is Sarahrosecav.com.

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