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Tips for Using Humor in the Classroom

"Humor is any communication, which is perceived by any of the interacting parties as humorous and leads to laughing, smiling, or a feeling of amusement" (Weaver and Cotrell 167). "Humor is most effective when it is appropriate to the audience, targeted to the topic, and placed in the context of the learning experience" (Garner). So, why use humor in the classroom? First, there are physiological and psychological benefits such as a sense of relaxation and the release of endorphins. Secondly, humor can serve as a method for communicating (Weaver et al). For example, it can be used to introduce a topic. Finally, in some studies, humor has been rated as important to students. Regardless of the reason for using humor, it should only be used to facilitate the delivery of learning, not impede it.  

Many of us do not perceive ourselves as stand-up comics, and the thought of introducing humor in the classroom can be frightening. Consequently, it's best to start "low-key" and determine how appropriate a strategy is based on student reactions. As to whether a strategy might be viewed distasteful, keep in mind that what is offensive to one might not be offensive to another, and when in doubt, leave it out. When using humor, do not use profanity, obscenity, religion, racial and ethnic group references.

The following strategies for using humor in the classroom are listed from the easiest, or most natural, to the most difficult or least natural, particularly if you are not a natural comedian:

  1. Smile. Some of us fear that if we are less than earnest, our students will not take our disciplines seriously. While our students may perceive how serious we are about our disciplines, as characterized by our formal expression, they might also view us as unapproachable (Weaver and Cotrell). According to T.S. Eliot, "Humor is also a way of saying something serious."
  2. Be spontaneous. Many of us follow our lesson plans or notes to a tee and can't fathom veering from our routine for even a few minutes. But, if something strikes us as comical, or if we have a funny story related to the topic, sharing it might lighten the mood and even solidify the point we are trying to make. (Weaver and Cotrell).
  3. Create a comfortable learning environment (i.e., an atmosphere where students feel comfortable asking questions and having conversations). For tips on creating a positive environment, see the CTE's Teaching Tip, "Strategies for Creating a Positive Learning Environment".
  4. Start class with a quote, fact, "though for the day," or humorous event related to the topic (Weaver and Cotrell). Any of these might make your students smile, capture their attention, and help them refocus as they begin your class.
  5. Share relevant stories and experiences from your life (or your students if appropriate). Students enjoy hearing about when their teachers mess up (Weaver and Cotrell). It helps them understand that mistakes are part of learning (Weaver and Cotrell). Keep in mind, however, that students generally don't appreciate stories that are lengthy or result in going off topic.
  6. Use appropriate and relevant media such as video clips from television or movies. Many humorous video clips can be found on sites such as http://www.youtube.com/ .
  7. Relate topics to students' lives. Read the student newspaper, watch some of their favorite shows, and listen to their music to get a better sense of what they find humorous. Then, find ways to relate it to the topic.
  8. Other methods for incorporating humor include the following: cartoons, "top ten lists" (i.e., "The Instructor's Top Ten Peeves" to communicate issues related to classroom management), connecting learning to mnemonic devices, etc.

A word of caution regarding the use of humor: If humor comes naturally to you, ask yourself if it is appropriate. Also, avoid being sarcastic with your students. Finally, know your audience and yourself, and if you or your students are uncomfortable with humor, don't use it.

References:

Deiter, Ron. "Why Use Humor in the Classroom?" Iowa State University Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching. 11.2 (1998), Web 27 Apr. 2010.

Garner, Randy. "Humor, Analogy, and Metaphor: H.A.M. it up in Teaching." Radical Pedagogy, 2005. Web. 4 May. 2010.

Goliath Business Knowledge on Demand. "Using Humor in the Classroom: Learning may be serious business, but that doesn't mean you can't have a little fun along the way." Techniques. 1 Mar. 2004. Web 27. Apr. 2010.

Kher, Neelam, Susan Molstad, and Roberta Donahue. "Using Humor in the College Classroom to Enhance Teaching Effectiveness in 'Dread Courses.'" College Student Journal. Sept. 1999. Web 27. Apr. 2010.

Plattsburgh State University of New York. "Best Teaching Practices: Humor in the Classroom." Center for Teaching Excellence. Web. 27. Apr. 2010.

Rosen, Lois. "Teaching Methods: Humor." Faculty and Organizational Development. Web. 27. Apr. 2010.

Shoesmith, Linda. "Using Humor in the Classroom." National Council for Staff, Program and Organizational Development. Web. 27. Apr. 2010.

Weaver, R.L., and Howard W. Cotrell. "Ten Specific Techniques for Developing Humor in the Classroom." Education. Faculty Development at Armstrong Atlantic State University, 108-2 (2001): 167-179. Web. 4 May. 2010.

 

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