How to Use Humor in the Classroom
Out of the blue, I had a reason to compile scientific support for what I knew to be true; humor and joy are appropriate in the classroom. Please indulge me while I illustrate the specific moment in which my curiosities were raised about the subject of humor in teaching. Then, if you are interested in incorporating humor and joy into your classroom, continue reading to learn the benefits, pitfalls, and tips.
Disruption or Humor?
The need for scientific support started with a concerned call from the director of youth programs for our parish. She said Hunter, my sweet, caring son, was repeatedly disrupting class and once had even walked out in the middle of prayer. “And”, she added, “it simply had to stop.”
“He was not the only one,” she went on, and to nip this in the bud, she wanted a parent at each class session. She volunteered me to be first; “see you Wednesday at 5 p.m.,” she said. Though completely shocked, it was just as well. Knowing my son, this is something I would have to see to believe.
Fast forward to Wednesday evening. I can hear my son during that class. His amazing laughter could have been interpreted as disruptive, but I hardly noticed because I was working so hard to suppress my own. Turns out, his classmates were quietly providing humorous interpretations as the instructor spoke. Even Hunter recognized his uncontrolled laughter would disrupt the prayer more than his exit.
The Benefits of Humor
I needed a plan before my follow-up with the youth director wherein I would share that humor and laughter are good things and that suppressing it, except under extraordinary circumstances like during prayer, may not be productive. It seemed important that, before the call, I verified my opinion was consistent with what research says.
I was a little nervous, so I tucked my knees into my chest and leaned forward; that’s how I roll.
Turns out I was right; humor is a good thing in life. My Google Scholar search yielded enough results to engross me in the subject for several hours.
Benefits in the Classroom
Humor can be an amazing contribution to the classroom. The benefits are well identified in the literature and arise from its role in creating a positive social and emotional learning environment. Humor can help foster learning, improve understanding, increase retention, motivate students, increase attendance and student interest, reduce anxiety, create human bonds, diffuse conflict, build trust and even extend life! The latter benefit I added myself through the power of positive thinking. I am 55, surrounded by humor, and intend to live forever. So far, it is working.
I can picture you nodding your head in agreement as you recall instances where humor made a difference in one or more of these ways for you, your family and friends, and your students. This is because humor is everywhere.
Where Can We Find Humor to Bring to the Classroom?
I began by asking my children, and just like that I was lost in a world of jokes. The joke we have the most affection for is “what is brown and sticky”? No matter how many times you hear it, it is hard not to smile when your child responds, “a stick”.
Short spoken riddles and jokes can liven up the classroom and bring everyone mentally together for an hour of learning. For example, “what do Alexander the Great and Winnie the Pooh have in common?” Keep thinking, we will get to the answer in a bit.
There are other ways to introduce humor such as videos, stories, personal experiences, pictures, memes, and improvisational discussion.
It is important to relate humor to the student experience. For example, as we discuss career options with our students and advisees, this story might be suitable.
Reaching the end of a job interview, the Human Resources Officer asks a new NDSU graduate, “And what starting salary are you looking for?” The prospective employee replies, “In the region of $125,000 a year, depending on the benefits package.” The interviewer inquires, “Well, what would you say to a package of five weeks’ vacation, 14 paid holidays, full medical and dental, company matching retirement fund to 50% of salary, and a company car leased every two years, say, a red Corvette?” The young interviewee sits up straight and says, “Wow! Are you kidding?” The interviewer says “yes, but you started it.”
Student created humor can also facilitate an experiential learning experience. For example, asking students in geography to investigate state boundaries and make light-hearted recommendations.
What Can Go Wrong?
Some teachers don’t use humor in the classroom because there are associated risks. The most important consideration for many is that it may be perceived as inappropriate. I personally try out my humor as much as possible with several people who could help me identify if I missed something that might offend.
The other general category of things that might go wrong have to do with whether the humor has a synergy with learning or for an environment that facilitates learning. First, the humor might be inconsistent with the level of student understanding. I was surprised when the elementary school students I was teaching about markets didn’t laugh when I shared the answer to “Why can’t you hear a pterodactyl go to the bathroom?” Turns out, the answer “The p is silent,” only works if they can spell it. It also may be the case that humor may otherwise be inconsistent with student context such as a humorous reference based on movies or songs from your era but not their own. This is not a challenge specific to humor, particularly when our classes include students from a different culture.
Finally, one might be employing an excess of unrelated humor. That is, the humor is either not related to the class or it is related, but some students do not recognize it because it is too subtle. I am often guilty of employing my very dry sense of humor so well that my audience does not read my sarcasm but rather believes me ill-informed, disrespectful, or other unpositive reflections.
Is Humor Working for You?
First you have to try it. Then assess the situation. You can use the diagram for your assessment. Perhaps the lack of smiles or the appearance of puzzled or offended looks alerts you to the reality that your use of humor did not meet your objectives. Don’t give up. You can fix the humor you use by altering content or delivery method and, of course, practicing. Or you can find another way of incorporating humor. My favorite means to do this is to borrow humor that works.
If you did not catch “that’s how I roll” and “so far it is working” as attempts at humor, my oral dry humor problem has followed me to writing. Perhaps I need to stick to the fact Winnie and Alexander have the same middle name.
How do you use humor in your teaching or what appropriate teaching jokes do you have? Let me know in the comments below.
About the Author:
Cheryl Wachenheim is a professor in the Department of Agribusiness and Applied Economics. She has been teaching at NDSU for twenty-two years, each better than the previous. She has two children.