Leading the way in performing arts research

What happens when you attend a Purdue Convocations performance? Does it refresh your memory of a novel you read, a favorite lyric, or a historical event? Perhaps you have great discussions about the show with your companions afterward. You know performances have an impact—but what if you could prove it?

Quantifying some of these impacts on students is the goal of new research led by Dr. Amanda Mayes, manager of education at Convocations. Before joining the staff, Mayes taught visual art from kindergarten through grade 12 for a decade, then taught at the collegiate level as she earned her PhD in curriculum and instruction. To test her hypothesis on the benefit of arts in the curriculum, she designed a study to assess the academic impact of seeing the Convocations performance My Father’s Dragon after students read the novel by Ruth Stiles (or had it read to them).

Schools were randomly assigned to two groups, and students who read the book were tested for comprehension either before or after the performance. Questions assessed knowledge of characters, plot, vocabulary, and higher-order thinking, such as the author’s intent and cause and effect.
Over 6,694 students at 103 schools participated, with the help of 15 presenting organizations in 14 states. Mayes and graduate student Bingxin Fa will analyze the data during 2018, preparing the findings for publication.

“Research at the kindergarten to grade 12 level can be a really hard sell to get teachers on board,” says Mayes. “They’re swamped and they don’t want anything else on their plates.

The fact that so many schools have been willing to participate shows what teachers know: that the arts matter for kids.”

“This is the kind of data about literacy and the arts that we want,” says John Brewington, fine arts coordinator for Virginia Beach City Public Schools, which participated in the study. “It can help us strengthen reading comprehension and develop arts education in a more focused way.”

In the upcoming season, Mayes will conduct a similar study from grades 4 to 12 with the Theatre Heroes performance of Call of the Wild, based on the novel by Jack London. Her study groups will also get younger, as she tests students’ understanding of basic math concepts following the performance of Peg + Cat Live!. With no existing research in this area, Mayes is partnering with Drs. Laura Bofferding and Signe Kastberg, faculty in mathematics education at Purdue, to design the evaluation.

Mayes is also conducting smaller studies with Purdue students. Preliminary data indicate that students in Dr. Jen Foray’s modern history course who viewed the L.A. Theatre Works performance of Judgement at Nuremberg had a better understanding of the historical events, as well as the concepts and moral implications involved in the trial, after seeing the performance.

Other Purdue students read the postapocalyptic novel Station Eleven and attended World Without Us, a performance imagining the globe after humans have disappeared. Their post-show discussion reflected impacts that Convocations patrons have long celebrated: a deeper understanding of multiple viewpoints and a sense of community with fellow audience members.