A research study conducted by a Purdue Convocations staff member has found that live theater can be used as a teaching tool to enhance student learning and retention of information — and even levels of empathy.
“Students tend to better remember and understand a historic event when exposed to its story via live performance — particularly live theater,” Amanda Mayes, Convocations’ manager of education, said in an email.
Mayes oversaw the research study alongside graduate student Bingxin Fa and history professor Jen Foray. As an art educator for over a decade, Mayes said she has experienced the benefits of the arts firsthand, and now wants to use the study to convince others of its benefits.
In it Mayes chose to focus on measuring what she calls “the magic of theater,” which she says is the immersion into a different world and the various connections the audience makes with the performance.
Theater professor Ann Shanahan said theater has the “capacity to bring individuals together to experience a shared event, a story; to make meaning together in the present moment, engaging body, mind and spirit in community.”
In winter 2017, Mayes and her team chose a history class and collaborated with its instructor to carry out the study. They selected a performance of Judgment at Nuremberg in the style of radio theater.
Mayes said radio theater is a fully acoustic performance lacking many traditional theatrical components, such as set design. Instead it relies on dialogue, music and sound effects to help the audience understand the story.
After the play ended, Mayes surveyed the 32 students who volunteered for the study. Questions on the survey included students’ expectations compared to viewing experience, and an examination of the differences in how they might have learned about the Nuremberg trials.
81% of the students surveyed thought the live performance helped them retain information more efficiently than any other form, such as a film or textbook. 88% thought they felt an emotional connection with the actors that helped them focus and learn more, Mayes said.
Mayes’ study also found watching the play helped students developed empathy, which she said is important in understanding the potential impact of live theater.
Theater professor Rich Rand said audience members inevitably connect with those on stage.
“Audience members, living in their human bodies, see actors living in their characters’ bodies, and together they are bound up in the world of the play,” he said in an email.
“It’s like a classroom experience, but deeper and more engaging. We’re imitative creatures. When we watch a play, we see different ways of living in the world, feel our way into the inner lives of other beings, and have a clearer understanding of ourselves in relation to the world.”
Theater can also improve critical-thinking skills and offers people an opportunity to analyze an event from multiple perspectives, Mayes said.
Following the original study, Mayes and her team performed a similar study, centered on children and a live adaptation of the book “My Father’s Dragon.”
The study was a randomized, controlled trial in which schools throughout the country participated, according to Mayes. Students read the book and completed a reading assessment either before or after exposure to the play.
The study found that students who completed the assessment following the performance had higher overall reading, vocabulary and comprehension skills than those who completed the assessment before attending.
Elizabeth Heaney, a graduate student in theater, said theater is unique in the way it engages audience members.
“Theater is unparalleled in terms of its potential for learning,” she said in an email. “Theater engages the audience in ways that other forms of communication cannot. Besides the power of emotional engagement, there’s full sensory engagement.”
Sensory engagement, Heaney said, can help audience members who potentially struggle with focus or engagement. It can foster teamwork, collaboration, and problem-solving, as well as resolve anxiety and depression, according to Shanahan.
In the future, Mayes said she plans to continue her research regarding the benefits of the arts and theater. She will be collaborating with clinical management professor Amy David to develop a new study. It will look to identify and understand the potential benefits theater can have on empathy and cultural competency, Mayes said.
“With the advent of technologies — film and television — in the mid-late 20th century, theorists speculated that theater was a dying art form,” Shanahan said. “Instead, in its live, embodied, communal functions, theater has not only survived, but its uniquely vital contributions ... to the health and thriving of culture have become ever more evident.”