Embrace the Mistakes Your Students Make

Negative notes serve a purpose. If a scene is bad, and if the note giver understands why the scene is bad, he or she should give that note. But why does it have to make everyone feel so bad? Perhaps there is a better way to give a note.

“And scene!” the teacher says as she finishes scribbling a note.

The two students stop their scene and stare at the floor in front of them, waiting for their notes. They know that their scene wasn’t good. It was a frustrating scene to perform. They know they made lots of mistakes, although they wouldn’t be able to name them if asked.

“Well, there were a lot of problems in that scene,” the teacher begins. “You two weren’t on the same page. Steve, you kept trying to make the scene about your ESP powers. It’s ironic since you weren’t listening. And Carol, you kept talking about your problems at the office. Those people aren’t in the scene, why are you talking about them?”

The notes continue for some time as the teacher lists several more mistakes. You can hear the disappointment and frustration in her voice. These are all notes she has given before. The two students feel awful, almost ashamed, and the rest of the class shifts awkwardly in their seats. The only happy thought among them is that it’s not them who are getting dressed down.

Finally the teacher asks them to try again. She gets a new suggestion of a location and has the same two students improvise a scene. This time they aren’t making the same mistakes, but that is because they don’t seem to be making any decisions at all. They are in their head, the scene is stilted, their play overly cautious.

“And scene!” The teacher stops it again and gives them even more notes.

Negative Notes

I would think that most improvisors can relate to this scenario. We have all been in classes or workshops where the teacher has taken the time to point out the flaws in our scenework. It doesn’t feel great when it’s happening. Sometimes, we feel like we have learned something from it, sometimes it’s just a negative memory. I certainly have my share of these kinds of memories, both as a student and a teacher.

The last time I was in Del‘s class was one of those nights. He stopped every scene I was in. Over and over he told me that I wasn’t agreeing with my scene partner. It was a tough night. At the time, I didn’t quite know what he was getting at. I thought I was agreeing. I certainly wasn’t arguing. I think now that I understand what he was trying to tell me. I think I have pulled a positive nugget from that negative experience to help me. But honestly, I’m still not sure that I got his point.

So, is this the best way learn? When we make a mistake, is it best to have that mistake compounded by harsh notes from a disappointed teacher? I’m not sure to be honest. The negative feelings associated with that note can go a long way to carving it into our brain and into shaping our future choices. Like a child not wanting to get burned, our gut tells us to avoid doing the thing that got such a negative response in the past. We typically want the approval of those who are giving us notes, so if the negative note is correct, perhaps it can help guide us to avoid similar mistakes in the future. However, there’s something about it that just doesn’t feel right to me.

Positive Notes

One alternative comes to mind immediately. We might want to dwell on positive notes instead. When a student does something well, the teacher should offer generous praise for that specific good choice that the student made. This probably does not happen enough in improv classes. I’m guessing that the majority of notes that I’ve given over the years have been negative ones. My hunch is that specific positive notes are probably more effective than negative ones.

I’m not talking about empty flattery, that is no help and it may actually hurt the student. Some teachers cover their students with blankets of praise. But it does not help to tell students that they are “good” and “funny” without telling them what precisely they are doing so well. What choices did they make that were right and why? Tell them that, and you will help them.

Better Negative Notes

So should we give up on negative notes? I don’t think so. Negative notes serve a purpose. If a scene is bad, and if the note giver understands why the scene is bad, he or she should give that note. But why does it have to make everyone feel so bad? Perhaps there is a better way to give a note.

It starts with priming the students for negative notes. Explain to them that you want them to play as if no one is giving them notes. You want them to make whatever choice occurs to them in the moment. You want them to play from their gut and react to what is going on and to silence that inner critic while they perform.

Next, tell them that they will make mistakes, lots and lots of mistakes. That it’s ok to make mistakes. It gives us an opportunity to learn. And that if they can leave a class with one or two very specific notes about things they actually can change or work on, they should feel happy and optimistic, not depressed.

Then you have to change how you actually give the note. When you spot a mistake, be upbeat about it. Be excited that you have an opportunity to give them a constructive note. When possible, give them a proactive alternative to their choice. Don’t just tell them to not ask questions, tell them to make statements that establish information instead. Mostly, it’s about tone though. Turn mistakes into opportunities. Be upbeat when you give them a note and be specific. And most of all, don’t keep them up on stage for a long time while you are giving them the note. Be brief, and then ask them to try again or sit down.

More Practice, Less Notes

What if students keep making the same mistake over and over? Find or create some exercises which specifically target that problem and use that exercise until they no longer make that mistake (this might be something you spend only part of your time on, spread over several classes). Treat it as a fun drill, and work on it until it becomes second nature. Giving a student a note over and over again is not the most effective way to learn something. Instead, they need to practice the right way to do something.

By the way, I was listening to Improvised New York today. They were interviewing Armando Diaz from the Magnet Theater and he put it this way:

It doesn’t do you any good if I give you a long lecture on shooting a basket; you shoot a basket; you miss; and then I give you another lecture on it.

2 thoughts on “Embrace the Mistakes Your Students Make”

  1. Your blog inspired me to post this on the Torch Theatre forum:
    Awhile back, NIna Miller had asked me how a Level IV class had gone. This was during a period when I was first learning about thematics. I hadn’t paid close enough attention to my partner, Tom Winker, and I took a position that was 180 degrees opposite of what Tom had initiated. After the scene, our coach, Jacque Arend, pointed this out to me and I started feeling pretty bone-headed. Not because of the way Jacque pointed out my mistake, but because I have certain expectations of myself and I had fallen well-below those expectations. I was in a bit of a blue funk when I responded to Nina’s query by telling her the class was better for some and pretty bad for me. Nina responded “Bad classes are why we take classes.” She’d put it in a different light for me. I’ve started to reexamine my mistakes and I try to look at them as stepping stones along the path to improving my improvising. As in life, it’s not about the destination, but the journey.

    Here’s what improv blogger, Kevin Mullaney has to say about coaching, being a student, and mistakes.
    Embrace the Mistakes Your Students Make: http://kevinmullaney.com/2010/04/27/embrace-the-mistakes-your-students-make/

  2. Great article! What I find often works is that criticism (for lack of a better word) be sandwiched between two positive notes. We can’t read minds of what other people are already thinking so better to err on the side of being more positive than appearing negative when the subject could be at a sensitive stage which we don’t know of.  And agreed on the tone; moreso it’s about delivery (eg. tone, body language, facial expression, etc). If the content/product is great but the delivery isn’t then one will be hard pressed to find a “buyer” in the advice.  

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