First, we want everyone reading this to go ahead and lower their expectations. While the two of us are big fans of comedy and using humor in many walks of life, we aren’t terribly funny ourselves. But here’s the thing: that’s sort of the point. While we’re not comedians, we use humor as a teaching tool. And so can you!
Comedy need not be shoehorned in, separate from core concepts. Priority should always be placed on teaching the most important concepts in the most efficient way. Our argument is that comedy is a useful tool for accomplishing this goal rather than only an entertainment feature to be reflected in evaluations (though that side benefit should not be undervalued). The more difficult it is to engage students and the more important the concept, the greater the potential for comedy to be helpful. Otherwise dry and challenging subject matter like tax and campaign finance law have been taught more effectively through the use of humor (Beavers 2011; Cecil 2014). This can be accomplished through two basic approaches.
Mode 1 – Be Funny Yourself
Those of us with the gift of comedic timing should not be afraid to employ it as appropriate. It helps that we as instructors are the beneficiaries of low expectations when it comes to being funny while teaching. Take advantage of that. While valuable, this mode of incorporating humor is more challenging and not something everyone can or should do if it does not come naturally (Wanzer and Frymier 1999). Luckily, the Internet has made a wealth of humorous material easily accessible for those of us less comedically inclined.
Mode 2 – Bring in Humorous Content
This brings us to mode 2, bringing in humorous content from other sources. We need not be comedians to make expert use of a funny video clip or image. Departments and instructors being asked to teach more students with less funding may find such resources particularly valuable. Larger classes, for example, may require more concerted efforts to keep everyone engaged. This can be accomplished with a funny meme to humorously drive a point home or a clip from any number of television shows, educational videos on YouTube, or documentaries to explain complicated concepts and inject humor with production values that educators could hardly hope to replicate. This can be especially useful for online classes.
But Wait… There’s More!
Comedy has the potential to diffuse tense situations as well as avoid or reduce anxiety in classroom interactions and on assessments (McMorris, Boothroyd, and Pietrangelo 1997; Berk 2000). This can be done with humorous instructions or funny character names in test questions (Powers 2005).
Ubiquitous millennial bashing aside, no matter the era in which you are born or the technology to which you have access, the attention span of the average human being is goldfish-esque. The use of humorous methods has been found not only to better capture the attention of students, but by doing so also improves retention (Ziv 1988; Miller et al. 2017). When you make class more fun, you make the content more memorable and improve the student experience. Students are more positive about the class and more engaged, which aids in retention of information (as well as retention of students!).
Like the proverbial spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down, comedy can be a practical tool for teaching. Our experiences, the experiences of many other educators (Powers 2005; Stambor 2006), and some empirical research (Banas at al. 2011) indicate a wide variety of potential benefits. Still, empirical research on efficacy is mixed. Some of the discord can be traced to different research methods. More importantly, it seems that student experience is more reliably improved with humor, while student performance frequently but less reliably shows gains (Banas at al. 2011).
The culture of your institution, the topic of your course, and a host of other factors affect the utility of humor as a teaching tool. Though we argue humor can be useful in places or for topics you might not imagine, do what works for you and what is appropriate for your classes. We aren’t all funny all the time. If we were, we’d have exciting careers at SNL and doing the New York stand-up circuit, not lecturing on C. Wright Mills and John Rawls. One of the best ways to connect with students is authenticity (Wanzer and Frymier 1999). If you aren’t comfortable with any one of these ideas, don’t force it. Being yourself as a teacher is a lot more important than trying to crack wise with a group of students that just aren’t having it. While you don’t have to be a stand-up comedian, employing a little silliness to your material can help with student interest, attentiveness, anxiety reduction, participation, information retention, and more.
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Banas, Josh, Norah Dunbar, Dariela Rodriguez, and Shr-Jie Liu. 2011. A Review of Humor in Education Settings: Four Decades of Research. Communication Education. 60(1):115-144.
Beavers, Staci L. 2011. “Getting Political Science in on the Joke: Using ‘The Daily Show’ and Other Comedy to Teach Politics.” PS: Political Science and Politics 44(2):415-419.
Berk, Ronald A. 2000. “Does Humor in Course Tests Reduce Anxiety and Improve Performance?” College Teaching 48:15158.
Cecil, H. Wayne. 2014. “Using Humorous Sitcom Clips in Teaching Federal Income Taxes.” Journal of College Teaching & Learning 11(4):157-162.
McMorris, Robert F., Roger A. Boothroyd, and Deborah J. Pietrangelo. 1997. “Humor in Educational Testing: A Review and Discussion.” Applied Measurement in Education 10:269297.
Miller, Julia L., Kate Wilson, Jennifer Miller, and Kayoko Enomoto. 2017. “Humorous Materials to Enhance Active Learning.” Higher Education Research & Development 36(4):791-806.
Powers, Ted. 2005. “Engaging Students with Humor.” The Observer 18:12.
Stambor, Zak. 2006. “How Laughing Leads to Learning.” APA Monitor on Psychology 37(6):62.
Wachowski, Lilly, and Lana Wachowski. 1999. The Matrix. Motion picture. United States: Warner Bros.
Wanzer, Melissa Bekelja, and Ann Bainbridge Frymier. 1999. “The Relationship between Student Perceptions of Instructor Humor and Students’ Reports of Learning.” Communication Education 48:48-62.
Ziv, Avner. 1988. “Teaching and Learning with Humor: Experiment and Replication.” Journal of Experimental Education 57(1):5-15.
Alissa Klein is a doctoral student at the University of South Florida. Christian Moriarty is a professor of ethics and law and the academic chair at the Applied Ethics Institute at St. Petersburg College.