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Melissa L. Johnson, University of Florida
Kyle W. Ross, Washington State University

Ross & Johnson,jpgIn the world of improvisational (improv) comedy, advancing is the process of moving a scene forward.  In the world of academic advising where student success is a central narrative, it is imperative that advisors help students advance their own scene.  Using terminology common to improv comedy, advisors can better understand how to support their students without causing information overload, blocking ideas offered by students, and taking over the scene from the students.  If advisors want students to be successful, they must find ways to collaboratively help students explore and heighten their ideas, provide offers in the form of suggestions and resources, and raise the stakes through challenge and support when appropriate.

Understanding Basic Improv Terminology (adapted from The IMPROV Page [n.d.])

The following improv terms are helpful in the context of advising, as they can relate to specific actions of the advisor and student during their conversations:

  • Point of concentration: the purpose of the scene
  • Narrative: the story told by a scene
  • Offer: an action which advances the scene
  • Offer from space: an action that appears to come from nowhere
  • Accepting: embracing the offers made by others in order to advance the scene
  • Advancing: the process of moving the scene forward
  • Explore and heighten: taking an idea to see where it leads
  • Raising the stakes: adding consequences in order to advance the scene
  • Wimping: failing to act on an offer that has been accepted
  • Information overload: introducing too much information into the scene
  • Driving: taking over a scene and not letting others participate
  • Blocking: rejecting information or ideas offered by another performer

Framing Improv Within Advising

Common improv terms and techniques can help frame the opening and development of an advising appointment.  The student and advisor each have an objective for the appointment, or a point of concentration that drives the scene they want to create.  Sometimes these objectives are very similar, such as both wanting to discuss a student’s choice in major/career, while at other times the objectives can be dramatically different.  The narrative of the advising appointment develops from the point of concentration and should have a clear beginning, middle, and end.  This scene advances through a series of offers by the advisor and student.  Advisors should accept the student offers rather than driving the scene themselves.  Driving can happen when advisors have limited time with students and want to resolve the initial point of concentration quickly, thereby ending the scene.

When an offer is made by a student, the advisor has several options in response.  The advisor can accept the offer, embracing it in order to advance the scene.  They can do so through open-ended questions, reflections of feeling and thought, or other active listening techniques (Barnett, Roach, & Smith, 2006).  The advisor can raise the stakes by introducing greater consequences for the student to consider.  For example, if a student is not motivated to improve their current grades, raising the stakes can help the student see consequences of their decision beyond just academic failure and dismissal.  The advisor can also choose to explore and heighten, taking the student’s offer and seeing where it leads, exploring its natural consequences while simultaneously raising the stakes.     

There are a few techniques advisors should avoid within an appointment.  Wimping is the decision to accept an offer but fail to act on it.  Advisors might hear several significant issues the student would like to discuss in the appointment but choose to only focus on one of those offers.  Blocking occurs when the advisor decides to act on none of the student offers and opts to drive their own agenda instead.  Last, information overload can overwhelm the student.  Overload can happen when the advisor tries to accomplish too much within an appointment, providing every resource the student could ever need in college while also reviewing curriculum and discussing the student’s career plans.

Understanding improv techniques can be especially useful when a student makes an offer from space.  These offers may be shocking or surprising as they seem to come from out of nowhere.  An offer from space could be very relevant to the narrative of student success, but the advisor does not see it coming.  The advisor has to process this new offer immediately and work to advance the scene in a positive way.  For example, a student may see an advisor to discuss their major, but in the middle of the scene offers seemingly unrelated information about their roommate, family members, or extracurricular involvement.

The traditional improv rule of “Yes, and . . .” dictates that when an offer is made, the other actor frames the next statement in such a way to complement that offer, whether it be a general statement of acceptance, or a statement to explore and heighten.  Regardless of response, the actor must accept the offer—blocking, wimping, and driving are not allowed.  Playing an improv game around the rule of “Yes, and . . . ” in training is an excellent way for advisors to adapt to these offers from space.

In the “Yes, and . . .” activity (adapted from The IMPROV Page [n.d.]), participants should form pairs and select a focus for their scene.  Participant A initiates the dialogue and makes an offer.  Participant B accepts the offer and advances the scene (“yes, and . . .”), avoiding blocking, wimping, and driving.  At the natural conclusion to the scene, participants should switch roles and start over.

As an example:

Participant A (role playing as an advisee): “I know it may sound weird, but I’m really interested in physics and anthropology and also creative writing. I was hoping you could help me make an academic plan to incorporate all of those.”

Participant B (role playing as the advisor): “Of course!” (yes, and . . .) “Let’s talk more about how these interests fit together . . .”

Other Uses of Improv Within Higher Education

These improv techniques can not only be used to prepare for the various unknown scenarios advisors face with their students in advising, but also to help students build confidence in facilitating their own interactions with others.  Discussing academic decisions with family members, networking and interviewing for campus leadership opportunities, and advocating for themselves in and out of the classroom are all scenarios in which students could benefit from practice improv exercises.  Improv games have been used in the University of Florida Honors Program’s first-year experience courses to help students feel more comfortable thinking on the spot in conversations.  By learning to advance a scene with their partners, students developed skills they could utilize in interviews and networking events.

Improv comedy also has been used to help communicate research outcomes to various audiences (Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, n.d.; Lantz-Gefroh, 2015), to teach professional skills for industry (NACE, 2016; Rocco & Whalen, 2014; Ruoff, 2015), and to help advance student identity and leadership development (Rosch & Kusel, 2010; Stewart, 2016).  An activity connected to improv, role play, has been used extensively in counseling to help prepare clients when dealing with potentially stressful scenarios in their lives (Crowe, 2014) as well as in academic advisor training and development (Duslak & McGill, 2014).


Improv comedy is already linked to several positive outcomes in various higher education settings and situations, and the benefits are clear for academic advising as well.  By incorporating these basic principles from improv into practice, advisors can advance their own professional development toolkit.  These improv terms and  techniques provide an alternative perspective to framing an advising conversation, particularly allowing for advisors to check when they are blocking, wimping, driving, and providing too much information.  Improv activities during training can help advisors better prepare for their students’ offers from space, as well as support students through a “yes, and . . .” mentality.

Melissa L. Johnson
Associate Director
Honors Program
University of Florida
[email protected]

Kyle W. Ross
Academic Coordinator
College of Nursing
Washington State University
[email protected]


Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. (n.d.). Retrieved from www.aldacenter.org

Barnett, S., Roach, S., & Smith, M. (2006). Microskills: Advisor behaviors that improve communication with advisees. NACADA Journal, 26(1), 6-12.

Crowe, A. (2014). Teaching psychotherapy skills with a semester-long role play. Journal of Psychotherapy Integration, 24(3), 258-262. 

Duslak, M. P., & McGill, C. M. (2014). Stepping out of the workshop: The case for experiential learning in advisor training and development. NACADA Clearinghouse Resources. Retrieved from http://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Clearinghouse/View-Articles/Stepping-out-of-the-workshop-The-case-for-experiential-learning-in-advisor-training-and-development.aspx

Lantz-Gefroh, V. (2015). How to tell an engaging story of scientific discovery. Scientific American. Retrieved from https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/how-to-tell-an-engaging-story-of-scientific-discovery/

National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE). (2016). Using improv comedy skills to handle difficult job-search situations. Retrieved from http://www.naceweb.org/s02242016/handling-difficult-job-search.aspx

Rocco, R. A., & Whalen, D. J. (2014). Teaching Yes, And . . . improv in sales classes: Enhancing student adaptive selling skills, sales performance, and teaching evaluations. Journal of Marketing Education, 36(2), 197-208. doi:10.1177/0273475314537278

Rosch, D. M., & Kusel, M. L. (2010). What do we mean when we talk about “leadership?” About Campus, 15(5), 29-32. doi:10.1002/abc.20040

Ruoff, J. (2015). Do liberal arts students learn how to collaborate? The Conversation. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/do-liberal-arts-students-learn-how-to-collaborate-47994

Stewart, C. (2016). Effects of improv comedy on college students. Retrieved from http://ir.library.illinoisstate.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1601&context=etd

The IMPROV Page. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.improvcomedy.org/

Cite this article using APA style as: Johnson, M.L., & Ross, K.W. (2018, June). Advancing the advisor’s toolkit: Improv skills for student success. Academic Advising Today, 41(2). Retrieved from [insert url here] 

Posted in: 2018 June 41:2


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