Engaging Students With Humor

He wanted to be called Lunch Box instead of his proper name. When I finished writing something on the board, I would usually turn to see him making a comment to a classmate with a devious smile on his face. Lunch Box was enrolled in an inter-session class that met five days a week for three hours with a break in the middle. A little over a week into the class I returned to find my markers and eraser missing. I calmly asked the class, “Would anyone happen to know where the markers and eraser are?” At first nobody said a word, but there were a few giggles and some anxious looks. Lunch Box, smiling like the cat that ate the canary, said, “Oh they’re still in here. You just need to find them.”

So what would you do in this situation? I was frustrated and could easily understand how an instructor could become angry and demand the location of the items immediately. Luckily for me, we had just covered the learning section, and I took this opportunity to do a variation of shaping. I asked the students to say “hot” or “cold” as I moved closer to or away from the items.

Students started to laugh and the tension was broken. Eventually they led me to the items on a shelf underneath the overhead projector. When I picked up the items, the class cheered and applauded. The discussion that followed was fantastic. We talked about how difficult shaping can be. Examples ranged from training animals to treating individuals with disorders.

That evening I received an e-mail from Lunch Box. He apologized for what had “seemed like a fun idea at the moment.” He also wrote, “It was cool how you turned the hot-cold thing into a lesson.” His level of activity and engagement increased for the rest of the semester, and he performed well on the remaining assignments and exams.

I believe occasional, appropriate use of humor can increase student attention and maintain focus. Along with others (Bobek, 2002; Friedman, Halpern, & Salb, 1999; McLaughlin, 2001), I have found that humor can help create a more open atmosphere and aid in classroom management. Students report they retain more information from humorous lectures and class discussions (Berk, 2000) and that humor can reduce the anxiety produced by taking a test or quiz (Berk, 2000; McMorris et al, 1997), and it is generally fun for all concerned, including the instructor.

I define humor broadly as an event that elicits laughter. It is not limited to jokes or humorous stories but can include props, puns, short stories, anecdotes, riddles, or cartoons. It can be anything that creates a positive feeling in students and makes them smile and laugh. Humor captures their attention and is memorable.

Guidelines for Teaching With Humor

Humor Should Not Be Hurtful or Offensive
Humor that furthers teaching is “constructive humor” (Tauber & Mester, 1994, p. 64) -— humor that is nonhostile and non-derisive of others. When considering the use of humor an instructor needs to consider “1) the subject, 2) the tone, 3) the intent, and 4) the situation, including the teller and the audience” (Nilsen, 1994, p. 930). Humor is something that everyone can laugh at.

The subject. Common sense and consideration of what your students may have experienced can help you decide what subject matter lends itself to appropriate humor. I have taught students struggling with eating disorders, those who have been stalked, been in abusive relationships, survived rape and incest, been forced to have abortions, been assaulted, had a loved one unexpectedly die, conquered or fallen victim to substance abuse, and one who died. There are subjects that are off-limits for humor.

Tone. Some of you have probably overheard students talking about another instructor saying something like, “S/he think s/he’s being funny, but s/he comes off as a jerk.” There is no simple recipe for the correct delivery of humor (if there were, there would not be so many horrible stand-up comics). However, teachers need to be conscious of their level of sarcasm as too much sarcasm may turn off students who believe the instructor is being too negative. If they cannot distinguish between sarcasm and seriousness, students may become confused or offended. A simple “and folks, I was being sarcastic,” may help create a more positive tone.

Intent. Like most everything else a teacher does, the intent of adding humor is to facilitate learning. An example of what not to do was related by a colleague:

In a night class, a student had fallen asleep. The instructor told the rest of the class to scream loudly at the count of three. The instructor then turned off the lights and counted to three. The sleeping student awoke in a panic and couldn’t see a thing. Apparently the instructor and several students got a good laugh out of the situation, but the sleeping student did not attend another class.

Before using humor, it is wise to ask, “Will this use of humor alienate or embarrass any of my students?” If the answer is “yes,” try a different strategy to get the point across.

The situation. Be aware of the dynamics between your personality and your use of humor, and the personalities of your students. A night class can react differently than a mid-day class. Summer and inter-session classes can be quite different from full-semester classes. If an instructor feels uneasy about use of humor, then it is a good idea to find an alternate strategy for presenting that topic (see Sev’er & Ungar, 1997 for discussion on considerations of an audience).

Events outside the classroom also can change use of humor. I had used a story about a plane being hijacked in a telephone-like memory demonstration for years without a problem. After 9-11, I needed a new story. Having said all that…

Don’t Be Afraid to be Funny
When I was learning to teach in graduate school, I was told that effective teachers do not fear making fools of themselves in front of their students, and I believe it. In fact, the professor who taught me this lesson made sure every teaching assistant he had lost all fear of embarrassment. During my time on his staff, I had to play a bit of information in the information-processing model of memory and run around a lecture hall to where sensory, working, and long term memories were located. Another teaching assistant and I had to wear Halloween masks of Beavis and Butthead (from MTV fame) and sit in the back of the class and model inappropriate student behavior. I also beat up a Bobo Doll during the discussion of social learning.

Students often resist asking questions because they fear embarrassment. If the instructor shows no fear of embarrassment and models that learning the information is paramount, this modeling creates an atmosphere where students will take a chance and get involved. The suggestions in the “Act it out” and “Use Yourself as an Example” sections that follow directly relate to this topic.

Make Humor Relevant
Humor in the classroom is most effective when linked to concepts being studied. Humor for the sake of humor might make you a “cooler” teacher in the eyes of some students, but humor that educates will help you become a more effective instructor for all students.

If a class is inattentive and an instructor tells a joke like, “Did you hear about the termite who walked into the saloon? The first thing he asked was, ‘where’s the bar tender?’ ” that instructor may have regained the attention of the students, but no learning occurred. On the other hand, if an instructor tells that joke and follows it with a discussion of the role of top down processing and context in communication (bar tender and bartender sound alike – how do we know when it is two words and when it is one?), then the humor facilitates learning.

A three-step method exists for delivering content-relevant humor (Pollio, 2002; Ziv, 1988). The instructor first explains the content information without humor. The humorous example, demonstration or activity then follows the explanation. Finally, the instructor summarizes the information and how it relates to the humorous event. Ziv (1988) found his method resulted in a measurable increase in the final exam scores of his students.

Act It Out
Good teachers all face the problem of important course content for which no good visual (film, video, DVD) or audio examples exist. Often they stand in front of the class and explain the research, concept, or disorder. Another strategy is to engage your students by “acting it out.” When I teach abnormal psychology, I sometimes demonstrate different therapy techniques for the class by portraying both therapist and client. The content of the demonstration will not be particularly funny, but seeing the instructor flip-flop between chairs and roles often makes students smile or laugh.

A benefit of acting out a concept, disorder, or piece of research is the ability to stop at any moment and ask questions like: “What do you think will happen next?” “How do you think this person will respond?” “What would you be thinking if you were this person?” My experience is that students are more willing to take a chance and respond since I have risked embarrassment by acting something out, not merely talked about it.

Use Clips From Movies or Television Shows
You can facilitate learning by using funny movie or television clips to bring to life course concepts or by asking students if the example was accurate or not, and in what ways. Students often enroll in psychology courses expecting to see clips from A Beautiful Mind, Silence of the Lambs, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Rainman. Why not show them clips from Me, Myself & Irene (Dissociative Identity Disorder), Monk (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) and Deuce Bigalo: Male Gigolo (Narcolepsy)? Sometimes merely referring to a funny show can recapture students’ attention. For example, during a discussion of brain structures you could note that anyone who has seen The Waterboy (a slapstick comedy about a simpleton who works for a college football coach as his waterboy and is found to be an excellent defensive player; he is then added to the team and must attend class) should be familiar with the medulla oblongata. If you could say it like Adam Sandler, the film’s star, you may have students laughing out loud.

By linking course information to popular, fun shows you show students that course concepts exist in the world in which they live. When watching these shows at some later time, the students may be reminded of the course information and have better retention. You can also ask your students to bring examples of the concepts you are discussing in class that they have found in their favorite shows and movies.

Try Music
Many classrooms today are equipped with computers for multimedia presentations allowing instructors to introduce topics with music as well as movie clips. Choose something unexpected or funny from time to time. Most instructors’ favorite songs are ones with which students are unfamiliar. Here is a list of songs you may not have heard, but might want to use after you hear them: Uncorrected Personality Traits by Robyn Hitchcock; Institutionalized by Suicidal Tendencies; Paranoid by Black Sabbath; Basket Case by Green Day; Entangled by Genesis; No Self-Control by Peter Gabriel; Your Racist Friend by They Might Be Giants.

Classroom Management
Most teachers become annoyed when students talk during class or their cell phone rings during a lecture or discussion. I have found using humor can stop the disruptive behavior while maintaining a positive classroom atmosphere. Instead of saying something like, “There is code of conduct for our students and I expect you to follow it,” try something like, “Are you going to make me write your name(s) on the board?” After making that statement, I usually pause then say in a very serious voice, “and you know what will happen to you if you get a check by your name.”

I have tried something new to combat the ever-growing problem with cell phones. Since most cell phones play music instead of ringing, I will stop lecturing and dance until the phone is turned off (it usually happens quickly since I am a horrible dancer and I usually try to disco dance). This behavior may not be appropriate for you but for me, after one dancing episode, students are quick to admonish each other when a cell phone goes off, “Turn it off quickly or he’ll start dancing again!” One instructor I know begs students to let him talk to whoever is calling, and actually has done so on several occasions.

Tests and Quizzes
Some teachers find no place for humor in testing because, for example, they believe it may be distracting to students (Renner & Renner, 1999). I am not one of them. I believe a humorous item or two can relax students and help ease test anxiety and improve performance (Berk, 2000; McMorris, Boothroyd, & Pietrangelo, 1997).

Humor in tests also may help a teacher avoid activating disturbing memories in their students. Though many of us would love a test full of real-life examples, sometimes they are inappropriate. For example, imagine you were writing a multiple-choice question about a person who experiences damage to a particular brain structure involving auto accidents, assault and battery, or military service. Of course, each semester we all probably have students who have known someone injured in one of those ways. Instead, have people experiencing brain damage because of severe paper cuts, unnoticed banana peels or games of Twister gone awry.

When writing humorous exam items limit the humor to the question itself and not the possible answers. A humorous answer may be appropriate from time to time, but it will change the item difficulty when a multiple-choice option is clearly invalid.

Humor also can be injected into tests without something zany happening in the question. You can use names associated with familiar television shows and movies. But make sure that the item still is meaningful if a student does not make the humorous connection you are striving for. Students especially seem to enjoy seeing the names of characters from shows from their childhood used in adult settings. I received a number of positive comments about this item:

Bert enjoys drinking alcohol when he watches football. Oscar will inject himself with heroin to escape the garbage heap he believes his life is. Cookie often gets hungry after smoking marijuana. Elmo enjoys the rush and feelings of confidence he gets when he snorts cocaine. Who has the lowest potential risk of becoming physically dependent on his drug?
a. Bert
b. Oscar
c. Cookie
d. Elmo

Berk (2000) has more ideas on how to construct humorous exam items.

Use Yourself as an Example
If you have a funny story that can help explain a concept, tell it. Students often seem surprised that their instructor was once young. Such self-disclosure helps create an open atmosphere in the class. For example, when trying to explain visual dominance I tell my students about a prank a friend and I did when we were 16. We would drive along a one-way street in the city with a lane between us. If we came to a red light with a car between us (and no one behind us), we would put our cars into reverse and let them roll backwards. We would then laugh, as the poor driver between us would slam on the brakes. Yes, I discourage my students from doing the prank. I tell them “road rage” was not a term yet when I was starting to drive although my prank may have encouraged its development. I also encourage them to experience the visual dominance effect by seeing one of the music shows at our planetarium.

Use Stories and Comments from Students
When a student shares a humorous story or comment, ask if you can use it in future semesters. One example I use came as the semester was winding down, and I was covering the last major topic area, social psychology. When I was talking about how changing reference groups can change a person’s attitudes, a young man raised his hand and offered himself as an example. He had grown up in Chicago and his parents, his friends, and he were all Democrats. When he began college, his roommate was a young Republican. The student started hanging out with his roommate’s friends, also Republicans. My student and his Republican friends remained close, and he was currently sharing an apartment with two of them. That year being an election year, he discussed politics with his parents and siblings when he went home for Thanksgiving and he found himself arguing with them. His father accused the university of warping his mind. The student concluded by smiling and saying, “Now I can go home and tell my dad that it wasn’t school that messed me up — it was my friends.”

Using student examples can help open up a class early in the semester. If you can share a story or two from past semesters, it sends the message that it is appropriate and desired that students interact and share in class.

Be Yourself
Just as Robin Williams would not be as funny trying to be like Bob Newhart (or vice versa), you need to find an application of humor that fits who you are. To that point, I would be surprised if anyone reading this column thought, “I agree with everything in here and I’m going to try every suggestion!” Chances are, many of you at some point have thought, “No way – that’s not for me.” Please pick and choose what might seem appropriate for your teaching style.

Conclusion
“One of the greatest sins in teaching is to be boring” (Baughman, 1979, p. 28). I agree with Tauber and Mester (1994), who also cite this quote, that teachers need to go beyond just explaining the information to reach their students. Effective use of humor can help teachers engage students and establish rapport with them, maintain their attention, create an open classroom atmosphere, and even ease distress during exams. You can make yourself less a distant teacher and better connect with students, and effectively manage a classroom. Hopefully, students will have a more positive opinion of both the class and the content material. Like any teaching technique, humor should be used in moderation. Not every test item needs to be funny and not every example should make your class laugh. You want to teach well, not do a standup comic routine.

Recommended Readings

  • Baughman, M.D. (1979). Teaching with humor: A performing art. Contemporary Education, 51, 26-30.
  • Berk, R.A. (2000). Does humor in course tests reduce anxiety and improve performance? College Teaching, 48, 151-58.
  • Bobek, B.L. (2002). Teacher resiliency: A key to career longevity. Clearing House, 75, 202-205.
  • Friedman, H.H., Halpern, N., & Salb, D. (1999). Teaching statistics using humorous anecdotes. Mathematics Teacher, 92, 305-308.
  • McLaughlin, K. (2001). The lighter side of learning. Training, 38, 48-52.
  • McMorris, R.F., Boothroyd, R.A., & Pietrangelo, D .J. (1997). Humor in educational testing: A review and discussion. Applied Measurement in Education, 10, 269-297.
  • Nilsen, A.P. (1994). In defense of humor. College English, 56, 928-933.
  • Pollio, H.R. (2002). Humor and college teaching. In S. F. Davis and W. Buskist (Eds.), The teaching of psychology: Essays in honor of Wilbert J. McKeachie and Charles L. Brewer (pp. 60-80). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  • Renner, C.H., & Renner, M. J. (1999). How to create a good exam. In B.Perlman, L.I. McCann, and S.H. McFadden (Eds.), Lessons learned: Practical advice for the teaching of psychology (pp. 43-47). Washington, DC: American Psychological Society.
  • Sev’er, A., & Ungar, S. (1997). No laughing matter: Boundaries of gender-based humour in the classroom. Journal of Higher Education, 68, 87-105.
  • Tauber, R.T. & Mester, C.S. (1994). Acting lessons for teachers. Westport, CN: Praeger.
  • Ziv, A. (1988). Teaching and learning with humor: Experiment and replication. The Journal of Experimental Education, 57, 5-15.


Observer Vol.18, No.12 December, 2005

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