In the context of the classroom, humor has been frequently disparaged, reduced to a “distraction” that detracts from the lessons at hand. However, as Bob Hope once said about the power of comedy: “I have seen what a laugh can do. It can transform almost unbearable tears into something bearable, even hopeful.” Particularly for difficult courses, students need positivism and inspired hope that often evades us in moments of frustration. After years of academic investigation into psychological and behavioral sciences, humor has proven itself a readily available, powerful tool for facilitating student engagement and mitigating stressful situations natural to the classroom environment.
Humor is inherently intelligent; capturing points of intellect and developing relevant humor in the context of the classroom is no easy task. As found in Jeder (2015), “If we call to positive emotion, as is natural in an activity with students, the implications can be distinguished: the association with positive experiences support learning, motivation for this activity and thus increases learning power, as well as academic achievement” (829). It is evident that positive association with an activity would yield more favorable opinions and motivation. In fact, a 1977 study by Kaplan and Pascoe suggests that memory recall and humor are positively correlated; students who were exposed to relevant humor based on the lecture were more likely to retain information on a post-test than their peers exposed to a non-humorous lecture (64). Professors can utilize humorous examples relevant to their lecture to promote positive associations with learning and memory retention.
While humor is powerful in its capacity to inspire retention and engagement, you must necessarily consider the negative aspects of humor in the classroom-after all, the classroom is inherently an environment for learning. Stuart Hellman’s “Humor in the Classroom: STU’s Seven Simple Steps to Success” adequately outlines the considerations professors can make to effectively use humor:
- Be yourself. If you are not a natural comic, export humor from other sources (like pictures and videos) as an aid;
- Pick your spots. “Use an outrageous example when introducing a new topic or concept. When the laughter dies down, go through and explain the concepts again in a serious, straight tone. The humor should not detract from the lesson or topic being taught”;
- Be politically correct
- Know your audience (being aware of different student backgrounds, age gaps, comfort levels, etc.);
- Use oxymoron, alliteration, and acronyms as “extreme examples” to aid retention;
- Acknowledge others and anticipate the environment humor creates, where teacher and student alike may participate (2007).
From Hellman’s own experience, he has found that having these considerations helped him keep student interest, encourage intelligent processing of material, and create a relaxed, conducive environment for learning.
Humor, of course, is not a one-size-fits-all art. The way in which you utilize humor in your classroom will rely on your comfort, your audience, and its applicability to the lesson. However, after you have found your niche in the realm of lecture-relevant comedy, you will have access to a tool sustains a classroom environment of relaxed and engaged students.