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Can humor be used in the classroom to promote learning? The short answer to this question is “Yes;” so long as humor is used thoughtfully and appropriately. As pedagogy writer Alicja Rieger states, “Humor has been reported to increase motivation, enhance the retention of new information, advance problem-solving skills, encourage creativity and critical thinking, facilitate a positive learning environment, and decrease exam anxiety.”1 On the other hand, unthoughtful or inappropriate humor can have the opposite effect; students subjected to such negative humor are more likely to be disengaged from class and are less likely to achieve the class’s learning goals. Here I will offer some thoughts on how to use humor effectively to foster student learning while avoiding some of the pitfalls of humor.

First, some helpful guidelines:

  1. Never, under any circumstance, make fun of someone (other than yourself), or tell a joke at someone else’s expense
  2. In the same vein, do not give students nicknames or make fun of their names
  3. Be absolutely certain that your humor will not be perceived as offensive- there are obvious themes to avoid (sex, stereo-types); yet, other less-obvious subjects may also be taboo; know your audience
  4. Humor related to course material is preferable to unrelated humor (which can be distracting)
  5. Don’t use humor (just) as “filler;” use humor strategically to promote specific learning goals (see below)

With these guidelines in mind, here are some positive ways humor can be used in the classroom to promote learning:

  1. Begin the class with humor to spark student interest, raise students’ expectations, lower anxiety, and create a more relaxed, positive learning environment:
    • Start with funny anecdote about the day’s subject matter or from your own life
      • For example, before discussing a new chemistry equation, describe something funny about the chemist who first articulated the equation or an unusual application of the equation.
      • In a philosophy course, before discussing a difficult text, a teacher could admit to her students that the first time she tried to read the text as a student she had to drink lots of coffee to stay awake, and thus developed her coffee addiction.
  2. Illustrate important ideas by breaking convention; do things professors are not supposed to do, and students will remember the idea
    • Put on a funny hat (when representing the views of historical figure now deemed incorrect)
    • Open the door of the classroom and with excitement pretend to talk to someone in the hallway, saying something like “Everyone should know about this…” (when describing a breakthrough in your field)
    • Draw a funny cartoon figure on the whiteboard with a speech balloon in which you can write out an important quote.
  3. Use humor to encourage deep thinking
    • Have students work on a difficult concept or equation though a silly or outlandish example:
      • For illustration, suppose in an economics class you want students to reflect on how the tax code affects the economy. You could give them two minutes to write down in as much detail as possible what would happen to the economy if coffee was suddenly taxed at 50% while money spent on hot dogs was returned as a tax credit.
      • In my theology course, I ask my students to picture an ancient theologian traveling via Dr. Who’s phone booth to meet a more recent historical person and to imagine what that theologian would have to say to that historical person.
      • When teaching self-defense, one law professor asks his students to imagine a scenario where “a limping crazy man wields a lumberman’s axe and approaches a student track star limbering up for a run. If the wild man is 200 feet away, does the student have a duty to retreat or can she pick up and use a submachine gun conveniently left on a park bench?”2
    • Present three challenges to an important idea, two serious and one silly.  A “silly” challenge, carefully designed, can be used to spark a good discussion about methodology.

 

Further reading:

Ron Deiter, “The Use of Humor as a Teaching Tool in the College Classroom,” North American Colleges and Teachers of Agriculture 44 (2000): 20-28

For a brief bibliography: http://pedagogy.merlot.org/HumorintheClassroom.html

For extensive bibliography on the use of humor to further learning in anxiety-producing courses, see: Neelam Kher, Susan Molstad, and Roberta Donahue, “Using Humor in the College Classroom to Enhance Teaching Effectiveness in “Dread Courses’,College Student Journal 33 (1999): 400.

http://jan.ucc.nau.edu/~slm/AdjCI/Startclass/Humor.html

***

1 Alicja Rieger, “Energize Your Classroom with Humor,” The Teaching Professor, 26.7 (2012): 5,8.

2 Perry Binder, “The Case for Humor in the College Classroom,”  The Huffington Post (2010).

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2 Responses to “Humor as a Teaching Tool in the Classroom”

  1. Chris Clark says:

    Thanks for this article, Justus! People interested in this topic may also want to look at Ron Berk’s book about humor in the classroom, *Professors are from Mars, students are from Snickers.* It’s available in the Kaneb Center library – LB 2326 .B47 2003.

  2. Justus says:

    Thanks for the suggestion!

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