Attending Live Theater Boosts Empathy, Tolerance in Students

Student field trips to live theater productions can lead to greater tolerance and empathy as well as increased vocabulary and enhanced knowledge of the plot, according to new research by the University of Arkansas Department of Education Reform.

The study, published inEducation Next, observed the impact on students after attending high-quality theater productions of either “Hamlet” or “A Christmas Carol.”

“What we determined from this research is that seeing live theater produced positive effects that reading a play or watching a movie of the play does not produce,” said Jay Greene, Ph.D., professor of education reform.

“Plays are meant to be seen performed live. You can’t always take your kids to a play but if you can, you should. The story can be conveyed in a movie, but it doesn’t engage the viewer in the same way.”

The researchers have conducted several studies exploring the effects of culturally enriching activities on students.

Two years ago, they found significant benefits in the form of knowledge, future cultural consumption, tolerance, historical empathy and critical thinking for students who had been assigned to visit Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas.

For the live theater study, the researchers offered free tickets to school groups in grades seven through 12 to attend one of the performances. A total of 49 school groups with 670 students completed the application process.

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.

All students completed a survey approximately six weeks after the performances. Students were asked six questions about the plot and five questions about the vocabulary used, combining them into a single rating of content knowledge.

Students who saw the live productions improved their knowledge of the plays by a very large margin, compared to the control group.

For example, 83 percent of the students who attended the live performance could identify Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as Hamlet’s friends, compared to only 45 percent of the control group. More than 94 percent of the live performance group knew that Ophelia drowns in “Hamlet,” compared to 62 percent of the control group.

To determine whether live theater increases students’ ability to empathize, researchers administered the youth version of the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test, which was initially developed for research on autism.

Students who watched the live performances scored higher on the study’s tolerance measure than the control group by a moderately large margin and were better able to recognize and appreciate what other people think and feel.

Source: University of Arkansas


Children watching a live theatre performance photo by shutterstock.