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Is a funny professor a good professor? Instructors may sense intuitively that humor in the classroom contributes to a better classroom environment and, therefore, better learning. Laughing students are listening and engaged students, so the thinking goes, and a student who laughs might also remember. Additionally, laughter can contribute to an instructor’s own comfort and foster more fluid teaching.Of course, a humorous instructor might also fare better on teaching evaluations.
But as Andrew Lotz, Political Science, notes, there are times when humor is useful in the classroom and others when it is not. Lotz, who on March 13th facilitated the CIDDE workshop, “Laughter as Learning: Appropriate Uses of Humor in the Classroom,” says that, “The goal is not to be professor jokester.” Haphazard and aimless jokes might only distract or, worse, compromise learning. However, Lotz is convinced that intentional, strategic, objective-driven humor, however, can actually contribute to more effective teaching. Lotz’s emphasis on strategic planning of humor in the classroom might surprise some, given his background in improvisational comedy, as a five-year member of an improv troupe in Michigan. As Lotz explains, however, improv paradoxically requires extensive practice, training, and preparation: “To appear spontaneous is actually to be highly practiced.” The same may be said for effective humor in the classroom.
Research indicates that when humor is used to create a climate perceived by students as positive and inclusive, they are more likely to learn. (For a select bibliography referenced in Lotz’s workshop, see below). That is why humor based upon discriminatory remarks or sexual innuendos, or which single out a single student or group of students for ridicule, even if meant in good fun, can be detrimental to learning. Lotz suggests that making light of oneself—again, with the class learning objectives in view—is preferable to targeting students. Certain concepts also lend themselves to a humorous approach, such as life-boat scenarios (“Who will you eat first?”) to teach utilitarianism. Subjects of a sensitive or serious nature, however (e.g., race or sexuality, human safety and security), may be less appropriate for humor. Ultimately, says Lotz, classroom climate, the nature of the material and one’s objectives for student learning determine whether a funny professor is a good one.
Watch the above short feature on the workshop.
Or, click above to watch a video of the full workshop.
For a more in-depth explanation of Lotz’s presentation, see Peter Hart’s article in the University Times.
- Ambrose, S. et. al. 2010. How Learning Works. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
- Booth-Butterfield, M. and Wanzer, M. 2010. “Humor and Communication in Instructional Contexts” in The SAGE Handbook of Communication and Instruction. Deanna Fassett and John Warren (eds.). London: SAGE Publications.
- Casper, R. 1999 "Laughter and humor in the classroom: Effects on test performance". ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. Paper AAI9936752.
- DeSurra, C. and Church, K. 1994. “"Unlocking the Classroom Closet: Privileging the Marginalized Voices of Gay/Lesbian College Students." Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Speech Communication Association, New Orleans, LA.
- Javidi, M. and Long, L. 1989. “Teacher’s use of humor, self-disclosure, and narrative activity as a function of experience” Communication Research Reports. Vol.6, no. 1.pgs. 47-52.
- Kher, N., Molstad, S., and Donahue, R. 1999. “Using Humor in the College Classroom to Enhance Teaching Effectiveness in ‘Dread Courses’”. College Student Journal. Sept 1999, Vol. 33, Issue 3.
- Loomans, D., and Kolberg, K. 1993. The laughing classroom: Everyone's guide to teaching with humor and play. Tiburon, CA: H. J. Kramer.
- Oppliger, P. 2003. “Humor and Learning”. In Communication and emotion: Essays in Honor of Dolf Zillman. Bryant, J. et. al. (eds.). New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Inc.
- Zillman, D. and Bryant, J. 1989. Guidelines for the Effective Use of Humor in children’s educational television programs. In P.E. McGhee (ed.), Humor and Children’s Development: A guide to practical applications (pp. 201-221). New York, NY: Haworth.
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The Teaching Times newsletter is devoted to the support of teaching and learning at the University of Pittsburgh. The Teaching Times shares faculty teaching experiences, strategies and techniques that can be applied in classrooms across the University. The Teaching Times welcomes letters and articles from faculty about any topic affecting University teaching and learning.
Carol DeArment, Editor