Teaching as Performance

To help students reach their academic success, Aaron Langille, from Laurentian University, approaches teaching as performance. He practices this approach as he finds it is “important to consider all the various ways students engage with our teaching.” For him, “it is not only content, it is also delivery.”

In the beginning, Langille explains how the performance elements were a way of mitigating his nervousness and uncertainty in front of his students. As he continued to develop these skills, “it became clear that they also served to increase engagement with the students, an engagement that complimented and augmented the content I was trying to get across. This made me want to develop these skills even further, so there was a positive feedback loop between managing my stresses at the front of the classroom and keeping students engaged.”

On October 16, 2019, Langille shared six strategies with UBC faculty that he has developed to connect with students in his classroom and help them reach academic success: voice dynamic, eye contact, audience involvement, pop culture, humour, and improvisation. If you did not have an opportunity to attend or want a reminder, review these helpful tips below.

Voice dynamic

A great approach to inform your class you are excited about the subject you are teaching is to include voice dynamics. Your voice is a primary connector, so display genuine excitement and enthusiasm. To become conformable with this strategy, Langille recommends practicing projecting techniques, and recording lectures. “Students are often very happy to help with this. It’s not always easy to watch or even listen to your own lectures, but it can help you find places where you can be more dynamic and effective.”

Eye contact

To develop a more personal connection with learners, try making eye contact with every single one of your students throughout your class. Although this can be daunting, it is rewarding. If you can do this more often than not, students will feel that you are engaging with both the content and with them. However, be careful with the distractions of mobile phones and laptops. Think about what you are willing to look beyond as a distraction. However, if you need some reassurance, find the “nodders” in the classroom, their attitude might help you keep going.

Audience involvement

Get your audience involved in the content you are teaching with performative examples (where your students participate), allowing them to further connect with the subject. However, tread carefully here, if students are not interested in participating do not force them out of their comfort zone for the sake of an example, only call upon those who are willing to participate.

Langille explains that “when you are actively doing something, you are far more likely to remember it than when you are passively watching it. Student involvement is key to this. This appears to be true even by proxy, when someone you know from the audience is participating. Some of my most engaging lectures or lecture segments involve students volunteering to come up and be part of a demonstration or example. Everyone seems to be more engaged, even those who did not volunteer. The connection in the classroom changes and seems to strengthen when students take part in the performative elements.”

Pop culture

Langille suggests using pop culture references in your classroom to engage with your students’ attention and motivation. To engage with this strategy, try keeping up with pop culture by watching some movies and series that are trending on streaming services, but also let students tell you what they enjoy and what they want to talk about. Nevertheless, feel free to stray away from current references as the classics are always effective.

As you start to undertake this strategy, get out of your comfort zone, laugh at your missteps, throw in some gifs, emojis and hashtags because your students are familiar and comfortable with them. Once you feel comfortable, try some memes, and be wary that these go out of fashion quickly. Langille has even created a meme thread for his courses where students can post memes related to the class. Here he can see what is popular, and students can engage with the subject as well as comment on what is happening in the class.


Once you have incorporated some of the other suggestions, attempt adding some humour to your lectures. This might be difficult at first, but remember, it is an evolving process. For Langille, keeping a positive attitude and laughing at your mistakes is key. Start from a place of joy and honesty and avoid dark humour or excessive sarcasm.

Tread carefully with humour. The type of humour you use always depends on your audience. It is important to note that you should never be inappropriate or try out controversial or hot topics. A good way to start is by putting jokes in assignments so that students can see that you are attempting to connect with them.


One final skill to have is to be able to improvise. For Langille, this is a “combination of all of the performative elements that I use in the classroom, including eye contact, vocal dynamics, humour, pop culture, acting and, in some cases, a bit of singing and dancing. Improvisation in the classroom can be as simple as responding to a question you didn’t anticipate or dealing with environmental issues such as classroom technology that isn’t functioning. It can be a response or, in some cases, can take over most of a lecture. I suppose that is the beauty of improvisation, its flexibility. It’s important to be familiar enough with the content that improvisation techniques augment, not detract, from what the students need to learn.”

If you are looking to improve your student’s class engagement and have them reach higher academic success with your lectures, try to implement two easy strategies. Langille recommends starting with eye contact and vocal dynamics. “None of the other elements, including humour, improvisation or even pop culture references, work as effectively without good eye contact and vocal dynamics. Eye contact forms the initial connection between you and the students, while vocal dynamics reinforce that connection and project your enthusiasm for the material.”

The reason to approach teaching as a performance should be students’ overall learning. In Aaron Langille’s experience through his performative teaching style, “students can see (and hopefully feel) how passionate I am about the practice of education. I want them to feel engaged in the classroom, so I demonstrate my own interest in the way I teach them. This is true both for content that I am personally very interested in, but also for content that I don’t have that same level of connection to. In the latter case, the performative elements help me to show students that even the “less-interesting” material can still be engaging.”

Dr. Aaron Langille is a Master Lecturer at Laurentian University’s Department of Mathematics and Computer Science. In 2017 he was awarded Laurentian University’s 2016-2017 Teaching Excellence Award for his work inside and outside of the classroom.