November 2nd, 2016

Humor in the Classroom


Professor smiling, students hands raised

Humor is one of my favorite teaching tools. I rely on it—when the room feels tense, when I sense learner drift, if I aspire to make a point more memorable. Humor doesn’t cause learning, but it does help create conditions conducive to it. It doesn’t make hard content easy, but it can make learning it feel easier.

Teaching Professor Blog I am still pretty regularly criticized for my use of humor—I have been known to use too much. The long-standing objection is that education is serious business. It’s no laughing matter. Our goal is education; not entertainment. Writing about the history of humor in the classroom, Debra Korobkin notes that before the 20th century, “collectively, teachers perceived instructing with a sense of humor as unprofessional, uncontrolled, and undignified.” (p. 154) Use humor and don’t expect to be taken as a serious professional. Some of that thinking still lingers today.

I admit that it is certainly possible for presentation skills to compromise the integrity of the educational endeavor. I believe that occurs whenever what happens in a course is more about teaching than learning—performance teaching, I call it. The focus is on what the teacher does, and learning is assumed the automatic outcome of charismatic displays of pedagogical prowess. That is not a problem most teachers have. We’re way closer to the education side of the entertainment-education continuum with only sporadic humorous interludes.

If we are honest, I think many of us aren’t really sure how to be funny in the classroom. The good news is that humor takes so many different forms. It doesn’t have to be a polished routine. It doesn’t have to bring down the house. It can be other people’s material, such as jokes (professionally appropriate, of course), comics, or cartoons. It can be dry wit, silly puns, or other kinds of plays on words. Sometimes humor involves making the most of serendipitous events. I often tell of the time when I was lecturing students about poor performance on an exam and explaining the addition of a new assignment to redress what so many of them didn’t know. We were in a windowless room and as I finished the lecture and returned to the security of the podium, the lights in the room went out. It was dark and quiet, until a voice in the back of the room announced, “God didn’t want you to do that to us.” As a class, we laughed about that event for the rest of the semester.

There’s been research on humor, not a lot, and not much that establishes its benefits with empirical rigor. So what various writers propose as the benefits of humor can’t be called evidence-based, but most of them make good intuitive sense. Humor helps students retain content. It makes material memorable. A recent article by a biologist explores the use of stories in teaching (see the December issue of the Teaching Professor newsletter for more on this). Early in the class, this instructor reads students a letter from “Twisted in Tallahassee” recounting a lifelong identity crisis. It just so happens that “Twisted” is a bizarre-looking insect known as a twisted-wing parasite. Given that introduction, who could forget the creature?

Humor connects teachers and students. It creates that sense of community, how we’re all in this together, how we all make stupid mistakes and need to laugh at our foibles. It keeps students interested and attentive. Some of us think it helps put students at ease—encouraging discussion and engaging exploration of topics and issues.

Of course, humor can be inappropriate. A large student survey identified humor that disparages students as the most inappropriate—snide comments about students, what they don’t know, how they don’t think, or what they believe. It isn’t funny to make fun of students. It’s also inappropriate to use humor that disparages groups of people and relies on stereotypes. Sometimes we hide behind humor, saying what we really think and then quickly adding, “I was only joking.” Not a good idea.

Can you learn to be funny? I’m not sure, but I think you can learn to bring to the classroom those expressions of humor that make people smile. You don’t have to have them rolling in the aisles, but small smiles and sighs at your attempts let you know that students recognize and appreciate the effort.

References: Korobkin, D., (1988). Humor in the classroom: Considerations and strategies. College Teaching, 36 (4), 154-158.

Wanzer, M. B., Frymier, A. B., Wojtaszczyk, A. M., and Smith, T., (2006). Appropriate and inappropriate uses of humor by teachers. Communication Education, 55 (2), 178-196.

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  • Patty Ball

    I loved this article. Of course, I also use humor a lot in my classes, and some use the same reprimand you mentioned, but no one in the classes ever complains, and they all felt that it helped the learning process of even the most difficult topics,

  • Dan Olinger

    I use a lot of humor–I think if you’re excited about your subject, you ought to be happy, and for me, happiness often manifests itself as humor. I wrote down a few thoughts on the topic a few years ago:

  • TomR

    Good article. The premise should not come as much of a surprise to
    educators who have tried to connect with apathetic students sitting glassy-eyed
    in their seats. This concept is supported by Robert Gagné’s first “event” in
    his Nine Events of Instruction: Gain Attention. “These were based on the
    information processing model of the mental events that occur when adults are
    presented with various stimuli.” [] However, the caveat
    is that to be most effective in helping students create associations, any
    “attention getter” needs to be relevant to the instruction that follows.

  • Oscar Romero

    Thank you Maryellen–for such a nice report in Humor….in the classroom. You are dead right on! I feel humor is always the best medicine—we just have to, as well as with any medicine, know how much, when and which medicine to use. We do have to be careful.

  • Jason

    Well said Dan, having a passion for your subject leads to natural enthusiasm and candor. Humor is a great way to keep students engaged, and I think most importantly demonstrates that as a teacher I am human, fallible, and approachable. I echo the concept mentioned of encouraging a community of learning, and shows students it’s important to have fun in what you choose to do. Thanks!

  • Dave

    Humor is occasionally advantageous in brick-and-mortar sections, but it may be problematic for online sections. Verbally presented jokes are sounds that immediately disappear, but digitally-represented joke text remains permanently in message board posts and in lectures that are presented as PowerPoint files or as PDFs. Thus, students have an unlimited amount of time to consider and digitally document all possible interpretations, including some interpretations which may infer that the professor is unprofessional. I have been unable to find scholarly literature about research-based studies in how to present humor in online sections. Can anyone offer assistance in this matter?

    • Dan Olinger

      Like you, Dave, I have only personal experience to go by; I haven’t seen any research. But in my online courses the humor I use is preserved in its context, which seems to protect against distortion of intent or appropriateness.

    • TomR

      As a developer of online instruction, I often incorporate humor into the learning content, usually in subject introductions or subject transitions. As an example, in a tutorial on infectious diseases, I inserted a slide with a drawing of a bartender behind the bar and a mushroom “standing” in front of it. The narration went as follows:
      “A mushroom walks into a bar and orders a beer. The bartender says “Why do you keep coming here? Nobody likes you.” To which the mushroom answers “Why not? I’m a ‘fun guy’.”

      [Narrator: 2 second pause]

      We now turn our attention from viral infections to yet another of nature’s agents of invasion: Fungi. Fungi are omnipresent: they live in air, in soil, on plants, and in water. Some live in the human body. About half of all types of fungi are harmful; which means there are plenty of harmful fungi out there!
      Oh, and yes, in case you didn’t know it, mushrooms are fungi!”

      I got very positive feedback on this and other examples of humor I have incorporated into my courses in various venues.

      Also check out the following paper on humor at

      Googling “using humor in education” will garner scads of information on the subject.

  • jdrexler

    I use humor daily…teaching an 8am class is no fun for anyone (including the instructor) and I go into the classroom thinking, “if they are laughing they are listening…if they listen, then perhaps they learn”…

    • Dan Olinger

      In my 8 am class the morning after Game 7 I had a test. That was brutal. 🙂

  • Mohan Das

    I have found that if we as professors can find humour connected with the topic, it brings better retention of the subject where it helps the students to educe the knowledge within.

    It is a wrong notion that the students can be taught through serious lectures.
    Actually, seriousness is a dis-ease.
    Playfulness get the learner relaxed and help him to educe his knowing within to discover and enjoy the the mystery of Universe.