Experimental Study Shows Major Benefits for Students Who Attend Live Theater

Jay P. Greene: jpg@uark.edu, University of Arkansas
Ashley Inman: ashley_inman@hks.harvard.edu, (707) 332-1184, Education Next Communications Office

Experimental Study Shows Major Benefits for Students Who Attend Live Theater

Culturally enriching field trips increase knowledge, tolerance, and the ability to read emotions of others

Culturally enriching activities, including field trips to the theater, enhance literary knowledge, tolerance, and empathy. A new experimental study published in Education Next examines the impact on students of attending high-quality theater productions of either Hamlet or A Christmas Carol. The researchers find that viewing the productions leads to enhanced knowledge of the plot, increased vocabulary, greater tolerance, and improved ability to read the emotions of others.

Researchers from the University of Arkansas constructed a randomized field trial, the gold standard of research, by offering school groups in grades 7 through 12 free theater tickets to one of the performances. A total of 49 school groups with 670 students completed the application process. Applicant groups were organized into 24 matched groups based on similarity in terms of grade level, demographics, and whether they comprised a drama, English, or other type of class. Lotteries were held to determine which groups would receive the free tickets and which would serve as the control group. Some members of both the control group and the treatment group also read the play or watched movie versions of these works.

Researchers then administered surveys to all students, on average about six weeks after the performances. For each play, researchers asked students six questions about the plot and five questions about the vocabulary used, combining them into a single scale of content knowledge. As compared to the control group, students who saw the live productions improved their knowledge of the plays by 63 percent of a standard deviation, a large increase. The research team found that reading and watching movies of Hamlet and A Christmas Carol could not account for the increase in knowledge experienced by students who attended live performances of the plays.

Students who attended live performances of the play also scored higher on the study’s tolerance measure (by 26 percent of a standard deviation) than the control group and were better able to recognize and appreciate what other people think and feel.  To determine if live theater increases students’ ability to recognize the emotions of others, researchers administered the youth version of the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test (RMET), which was initially developed for research on autism. Students took a quiz that asked them to identify the characters’ emotions. The higher number of correct answers given by students who attended one of the performances translates into an ability level almost one-quarter of a standard deviation greater than that of students who did not attend the plays.

The study, “Learning from Live Theater: Students realize gains in knowledge, tolerance, and more” will appear in the Winter 2015 issue of Education Next is available now on https://www.educationnext.org.

About the Authors

Jay Greene is professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas, where Collin Hitt and Anne Kraybill are doctoral students and Cari A. Bogulski is a researcher.

About Education Next

Education Next is a scholarly journal published by the Hoover Institution that is committed to careful examination of evidence relating to school reform. Other sponsoring institutions are the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University, part of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government at the Harvard Kennedy School, and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. For more information about Education Next, please visit: https://www.educationnext.org.

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