“Take My Exam…Please!” When Humor Does (and Doesn’t) Work in the Classroom

Cliff Rouder, Assistant Director of the CAT
Teaching and learning

Believe it or not, there’s a lot of humorous research--I mean, research on humor--40 year’s worth, give or take.  Everything from theories of humor to the benefits of it in an educational setting has been explored.  Too bad I didn’t know about this when I was choosing my dissertation topic.  “Sorry I missed your final, professor, but I was out until 4:00 a.m. at the comedy club doing my dissertation research.”  Ahh, to dream.

Okay, let’s get serious about humor for a moment.  A review of humor in educational settings published in 2011 and spanning 4 decades revealed that appropriately used humor can do a number of pretty great things in the classroom, including:
  • Creating or strengthening a bond between students and professor

  • Easing stress or tension

  • Enhancing students’ understanding of the material

  • Creating a sense of wonder

  • Making the content more relatable and helping students remember things better

I’m sure you can think of a time when humor had one or more of these positive effects in your classroom.  But what kind of humor has this power?  Here we can look to Instructional Humor Processing Theory (IHPT).  The theory is two-fold: 1. The mere act of students recognizing the humor will increase students’ attention, and 2. Students need to perceive and then figure out some type of incongruity in the humorous message.  

There are many different ways IHPT can be put into practice.  Google “types of humor” and you’ll see lists ranging from seven to 20 types.  I’m going to pick two that I’ve used in my own classroom that had at least one of the positive effects above (based on comments from my students each semester).  Which benefits do you think my students mentioned?  

Self-deprecating humor: I would tell my students the story of when I began my dietetic internship program.  I was rotating in the pediatric unit and was asked to check out a child’s eyes and nose--or at least that’s what I thought the dietitian had said.  I went up to the child’s bed and tried desperately to think of what nutrition-related issue may be affecting his eyes and nose. After a few minutes of not seeing anything wrong with the child’s eyes and nose, I had to confess.  Bracing for the worst, the dietitian instead burst out laughing.  Know why?  She had actually asked me to check his “I’s and O’s” (fluid intake and fluid output), not his eyes and nose!  

Physical humor:  I was role-playing a less-than-professional hospital dietitian pretending to assess a patient (played by a brave student).  I “plopped” the medical chart and all my notes on her bed, hitting her leg.  I then asked her questions while looking in the mirror combing my hair; I made a ghastly facial expression looking at her pureed dinner, and to add insult to injury, I made sure to trip over her IV lines.

Other types of humor you can try are plays on words (one of my favorites), improvisational, and observational, to name just a few.  

“But what if I’m not especially funny?” you may be asking.  If you are really uncomfortable using humor when it’s not natural to you, no worries, there are other ways to engage students. But if you do want to try your hand at humor but need a little help, without too much effort, you can find online or print humor that can apply to your course content.  You can also harness the humor of your students.  However, before turning your classroom into a Comedy Central TV special, note that there are some types of humor that should be avoided in the classroom.  Here are some handy guidelines:

When in doubt, leave it out.  If there is even the slightest chance that the humor could be perceived as inappropriate or offensive, then leave it out.  Think bodily humor, blue humor, and topical humor like political humor.  Remember, though, if something slips out that evokes a less-than-desirable verbal or non-verbal reaction, address it on the spot.  Sometimes eating a piece of humble pie is just the ticket to show that you are human and can take responsibility for your mistakes.  

Too much, Jerry. Too much.  This line from the sitcom “Seinfeld” highlights two potential problems: overdoing the humor to the point of distraction, and referring to outdated or obscure sources of humor.  Speaking of which, what about the title of this piece?  How many of you knew this was a take-off on the classic line, “Take my wife…please!” from the popular comedian Henny Youngman back in 1950’s and 60’s?  

I know what you’re thinking: So what’s the big deal if they don’t get the reference?”  Well, I’m sure you’ve experienced humor that went over your head.  It made you feel a little alienated or even downright embarrassed, right?  So let’s avoid putting our students in that situation.  You may be asking, “What if I preface or follow the humorous reference with an explanation?  Would that help?”  It may, but having to explain it kind of kills the spontaneity.

Perhaps the best litmus test for whether to use humor (and what kind and how much) is to ask yourself, “Will the humor enhance learning?”  As with many things in life, moderation and thoughtfulness are key, so when you see an opportunity for humor to enhance learning, use it judiciously and respectfully.  Otherwise, your classroom “show” may get cancelled.

For more on the benefits of humor and guidelines for effective use in the classroom, check out a few resources here, here or here.  

What has been your experience as a professor using humor in your classroom?  Humorous minds want to know!

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