Humor as a Motivator

In her article Alicja Rieger PhD (2014), Energize Your Classroom with Humor, tells us that numerous studies on humor in the classroom acknowledge the important role it plays in the learning process. Humor has been reported to increase motivation, enhance the retention of new information, advance problem-solving skills, encourage creativity and critical thinking, facilitate a positive learning environment, and decrease exam anxiety (Martin, 2007). Although the focus is on the college classroom the concepts work just as well in the K-12 learning environment. The following are several ways to energize the classroom with humor:

 Use humor to get and maintain students’ attention

Getting and holding students’ attention every day in class is both a challenging and daunting task. Curricula are rigorous and students lead busy lives. They arrive in class after having been in other classes, having done fieldwork, or having been at work. As they sit down in overheated and crowded classrooms furnished with uncomfortable seats, even the most disciplined students may struggle to maintain attention (Skinner, 2010).

But humor can help. Berk has pointed out that students cannot laugh and snore at the same time. In his 1998 book Professors Are from Mars, Students Are from Snickers: How to write and Deliver Humor in the Classroom and in Professional Presentations, Berk recommends asking a series of content-related questions and following them with one or two unexpected punch-line questions. For example, suppose an education class is discussing the effectiveness of an intervention for a third-grade student with special needs. The teacher might ask this series of questions:

  1. How many of you think the intervention is working for the target student?
  2. How many of you think the intervention is not working for the target student?
  3. How many of you think the target student owns a motorcycle?
  4. How many of you would prefer to go for lunch (dinner)?

Students don’t expect the last two questions. They are surprised and respond with smiles or laughter. If the teacher carries on expecting students to answer the last two questions, students become involved. They listen more attentively for answers to the important questions.

Use humor to promote critical thinking and creativity

In the college classroom, teaching should move beyond transmitting facts to encouraging students to think critically and creatively about the subject matter. According to Tamblyn (2003), students must use their imaginations and open their minds to new ideas if they are to think critically and creatively. Humor is about allowing oneself to be intellectually playful with ideas. Individuals like Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, and Beatrix Potter have made major contributions to the world because they were persistent and mentally playful.

Simple exercises can unleash the intellectual playfulness of your students. For example, I ask my students to solve the following problem I found online: The chairs and stools in a classroom make too much noise when students sit down and get up. What can be done to achieve sweet silence? Problems like this could be created with all sorts of different content. The goal is to encourage answers outside the box.

After the exercise, ask the students the following questions: Why do we become less playful during adulthood? Why do we become less mentally playful in the academic disciplines? Why do most college professors consider play and humor adversarial to learning? Remind students that learning, if it is to be mentally playful, often entails experiencing unoriginal ideas before stumbling onto a good idea. It is said that Thomas Edison played with no less than 10,000 bad ideas before he serendipitously found a right idea for the light bulb (Tamblyn, 2003).

 Begin telling jokes and funny stories

Once you’ve gotten used to the idea of humor in your classroom, you may consider telling jokes and/or funny stories. Here are some tips from McGhee (1994) that will increase the chances that students will respond with smiles and laughs:

  • Avoid telling jokes/stories that you don’t know well.
  • Don’t laugh at your own jokes/stories (especially before you tell them).
  • Avoid starters like “This is a joke” or “I’m not very good at telling jokes, but …”
  • Remember that the punch line is at the end, not somewhere else in the telling.
  • Use positive humor instead of negative humor.
  • Know your audience and their sensitivities. Not knowing them, you may be offensive and not even aware of it.
  • Personalize or localize jokes/stories when possible.

Regardless of which approach you choose to energize your college classroom, it is essential that the humor used be directly related to the class content. Here are some examples of excellent sources with content-related humor:

Pyrczak’s (1999) Statistics with a Sense of Humor,

Reeves’ (2007) Cartoon Corner: Humor-Based Mathematics Activities,

Paulos’ (1982) Mathematics and Humor,

Kenefick’s and Young’s (1993) The Best of Nursing Humor

Giangreco’s and Ruelle’s (2007) Absurdities and Realities of Special Education: The Complete Digital Set!

 Note: Complete citations for those references mentioned in this article may be requested from Dr. Rieger. Contact her at