Improvisation for Advising Conversations

Why Improvisation?

Three key skills of improvisation are listening, supporting, and being present.

Applied improvisation, the practice of applying improvisational skills in real-world settings, is becoming increasingly recognized as a catalyst for igniting lasting change within organizations and for creating cultural capital through improved communication and collaboration skills (Dudeck & McClure, 2018). In recent years, applied improvisation has been brought into higher education spaces as a key training modality to “respond more effectively to complex problems and to manage the uncertainty of the future” (Hoffmann-Longtin & Rossing, 2016). Improvisational skills can help mentors and advisors more effectively act and react when faced with the unexpected in interactions with students. Our goal for this program was to provide Pitt mentors and advisors with an opportunity to learn and practice improvisational skills in a contextualized setting, in partnership with Pitt students.

Training Overview

Our "Improvisation for Advising Conversations" training session began with an introduction to the basic skills of improvisation through a series of games and exercises. Then, participants worked with real Pitt students to practice their improvisation skills through a series of facilitated role-plays. These simulations provided a safe environment to practice new tactics for dealing with non-transactional––and sometimes difficult––conversation areas, like academic foreclosure*, personal issues, disengagement, and other topics.


We recognized that integral to the design and success of this program would be the involvement of students. As such, we partnered with the Department of Theater Arts to hire student performers and train them in the fundamentals of facilitation and applied improvisation, and to build a bench of talent for future trainings. This experience provided students with an introduction to some of the real-world professional opportunities that are available to performers in the applied improvisation and corporate training industries. We also partnered with the advising units in every school, as well as the Pitt Commons programs and partners, to invite advisors and mentors at all levels across the university.

Key Takeaways from Participants

  • Pitt students are Pitt students. In other words, there is much more alike than different between our students in various units, colleges, and schools.
  • Since we had both career advisors and academic advisors in the room, they saw there are many synergies between career and academic advising, especially in terms of how to approach conversations with students.
  • It is important to be present during student appointments, and It is important to maintain enthusiasm (even if we don't always feel like it) for the benefit of our students and their success.
  • It would be useful to create an advising "toolkit" for advising resources and information (this was created after the workshop).
  • Opportunities like this are validation – advisors and mentors like to know that others are having the same issues and ideas, and that we can all work on them together.


* "Foreclosed students are identified as such because they have bound themselves to a single choice with very limited research into their interests, strengths and abilities or of program and career options." (Salinas & Ross, 2015)