Improvisation Inspires Innovation at UA College of Pharmacy

Improvisation Inspires Innovation at UA College of Pharmacy

By University Communications
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Kevin Boesen (in pink shirt near top) instructs pharmacy students in an improvisational exercise.
Kevin Boesen (in pink shirt near top) instructs pharmacy students in an improvisational exercise.
Kevin Boesen
Kevin Boesen
David Apgar, left, and Richard Herrier
David Apgar, left, and Richard Herrier

Have you heard the one about the pharmacy professors who used stand-up comedy techniques to teach their students better communication skills?

It's no joke.

It might not seem like improvisational comedy has a lot to do with the practice of pharmacy, but three University of Arizona professors have won an award for an innovative class that joins the two.

College of Pharmacy professors Kevin Boesen, David Apgar and Richard Herrier have been recognized with the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy’s Innovation in Teaching Award for their use of improvisational exercises to improve the communication skills of their students. The UA's is one of three programs to receive the award from the AACP.

The idea for the award-winning class took shape after Boesen, who graduated from the UA in 1996, returned to campus as a professor of pharmacy in 2004.

In his absence from Arizona, Boesen studied improvisational comedy for three years at The Second City, an improv club in his hometown of Chicago.

"You realize quickly that the skills they teach you in improv are communication skills," he said, explaining that he was able to apply his improvisation skills to other aspects of his life.

Boesen said that he felt like a better communicator in his personal life and in his work life after his time with Second City, and when he came to the UA, he saw an opportunity to teach students better communication skills in a unique way.

Good communication skills are vital to students' role as pharmacists, Boesen said. "It will help them develop rapport with people, problem solve and think on their feet."

As part of the class, students do exercises in large and small groups, participating in activities such as acting out scenes based on certain circumstances and playing word games.

The exercises require them to determine the focus of a group situation, create conversations that move in a positive direction, and focus on word patterns while blocking out background noise.

"A number of the exercises can be done in teams or small groups to accomplish the objective of improving communication skills," Boesen said. "We also use nonverbal communication exercises that include eye contact, body language, environment and emotion."

Improvisational exercises also challenge students' comfort levels, Boesen said.

"Some of our students aren't the most outgoing or theatrical," he said. "So improv serves as a good icebreaker."

The improvisational exercises are part of a required course on patient interviewing and counseling skills. Boesen, Apgar and Herrier found that implementing the exercises and tweaking the curriculum yearly, based on course evaluations, greatly improved student performance in standardized patient examinations, where students complete medication histories, counsel pretend patients about prescription medications and respond based on cues from the patient.

Boesen said that as far as he knows the UA College of Pharmacy is the first to use improvisational exercises to improve the communication skills of pharmacy students.

This is the fourth time UA College of Pharmacy faculty members have received the AACP's Innovation in Teaching Award in the last 14 years. It is the second award for Herrier.

Former faculty member Rebekah Jackowski also participated in the improvisation project.

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