Humor in the Classroom

7 Nov

 “What is the single most important thing a college instructor can do to be effective?”

Whether an informal survey conducted by Center for Teaching and Learning staff, or more formal empirical studies including classroom research, the answer is:

 Have a sense of humor.

Research studies show that the use of humor in the classroom can lower students’ affective filters, help them feel more comfortable in class, and make us, the instructors, seem more approachable and human.  Humor directly related to the course content can also facilitate retention of course content.

Yes, very few of us can work a room like Jon Stewart, Jay Leno or Ellen DeGeneres.  How, therefore, can one ordinary teacher open up the laughter factor in the classroom?

Ronald Berk – a biostatistics/measurement professor in the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing, and author of Professors Are from Mars, Students Are from Snickers – found the following strategies effective in reducing student anxiety, improving student ability to learn, and in helping students perform overall at their best:

 Humorous material on handout covers.  Cautions, warnings, and advisories such as “Store in a cool, dry place” or “If not reviewed within one week, material will spontaneously combust “ can get students’ attention.

Humorous material on exams.   Test directions could include “The purpose of this exam is to find out whether you know anything.”   At the end of the test, a joke or funny comment such as “A statistician is someone who can have his head in an oven and his feet in ice, and say that on the average he feels great. “

Humorous problem set. Twenty-five years later, I still remember the “ bouncing  cow”  problems I was  given in Algebra II.  Fedor Duzhin, a mathematics lecturer at Nanyang Technological University, created the following calculus problem – along with others involving crazy alien robots, Han Solo, and “Dr. Fedor” himself:

In-class humorous examples.  Evidence has shown that students may remember these examples more than others.  In a history class, students could write a Facebook status from the perspective of a person being studied.  A literature class could begin with you-the-professor projecting the Facebook status of the protagonist.  See additional examples – and some strategies for developing comfort and fluency in using humor in the classroom – set out in the “Humor in the Classroom” resource below.

Spontaneous humor.   When the opportunity for spontaneous humor arises, take it.  Remember, most of all, to target yourself and not your students.

As noted by Randy Garner, a professor of Behavioral Sciences and former associate dean in the College of Criminal Justice at Sam Houston State University:

Humor is most effective when it is appropriate to the audience, targeted to the topic, and placed in the context of the learning experience.

Say, did you hear the one about….



Ronald Berk: “Student Ratings of 10 Strategies for Using Humor in College Teaching.” Journal on Excellence in College Teaching 7.3 (1996): 71-92.

Fedor Duzhin:  “Funny Questions in Calculus.”  24 September 2008.

Randy Garner:  “Humor, Analogy and Metaphor: HAM it up in Teaching.” Radical Pedagogy 6.2 (2005).

Billie Hara: “Humor in the Classroom.”  The Chronicle of Higher Education 26 January 2010.

Jason Jones:  “Professor-funny.”  18 July 2009.

Performance Learning System website: “Humor in the Classroom.”


by Mary Jetter – Center for Teaching and Learning:


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