Humor Helps

6 Apr

Five weeks…you’ve got five weeks left in the semester.  Your students have five weeks left.

Everyone has spring fever – or will have if the reader has been looking lately at mountains of piled snow, which are now melting to mere kickable clumps. 

Is it time to panic?  No – it’s time to revisit last year’s post on humor.

Remember this key question from last year?

 “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 remains:

 Display 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 and laughter release those feel-good endorphins and 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, Chelsea Handler, Jay Leno, or Ellen DeGeneres.  How, therefore, can one ordinary teacher build that necessary laughter factor in the classroom?

Here are a few ground rules from Stuart Hellman to get you started:  

  1. Be yourself – but don’t laugh at your own jokes.
  2. Pick your spots – go for maximum impact, not saturation
  3. Don’t offend – be aware of diversity
  4. Know your audience – there might be a huge generation gap between you and your students.  Get to know them.
  5. Oxymorons, alliteration, and acronyms can be your friends – these get and keep attention. (just don’t use “grope” as an acronym as one CTL staffer !)considered doing
  6. Sometimes, you’ve just gotta shut up – wait for your students to say something funny.
  7. Acknowledge other’s humor – now that Joe’s said something funny, acknowledge it.  “Student 1 – Instructor 0.”

Let’s review now some specific strategies for using humor.

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 in course handout design.  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.“  Or maybe an image like these:

Chemistry Jokes Argon

joke about question marking going out with apostrophe who was too possessive


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.  See Berk’s collection of articles – many on humor in teaching and learning – here:

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.”

 Stuart Hellman “Humor in the Classroom: Stu’s Seven Simple Steps to Success.” College Teaching. 55.1 (2006):177


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