Light snackThe average adult attention span is generally considered to be approximately 20 minutes. At Virginia Tech, class duration ranges from 50 minutes to nearly 3 hours. Since lectures aren’t likely to be reduced to 20 minutes, instructors (at least the good ones) implement various active learning strategies to maintain student engagement. A few of the more common active learning techniques include, discussion, group activities, in-class writing assignments, and question/answer sessions. However, Hackathorn et al., (2011) reports on an often forgotten, yet effective, strategy that may require little to no effort in execute: humor.

In the study, “All kidding aside: Humor increases learning at knowledge and comprehension levels,” (Hackathorn et al., 2011) humor is evaluated as a teaching tool for improving students’ knowledge, comprehension and application. The instructor utilized puns, riddles, jokes, personal anecdotes and multi-media as sources of humor to deliver the course material for a social psychology course. Assessment quizzes indicated that humor improved students’ overall exam performance and was especially beneficial for improving knowledge and comprehension. Why does humor work? The authors of this study use the following example to suggest one possible explanation:

“‘Does the name Pavlov ring a bell?’ is a play on words that is related to a famous psychologist, but requires students to remember who Pavlov is and remember his work with conditioning in order to understand the humorous twist. Thus, recall, retention, and comprehension skills are practiced while decoding the pun.”

In addition to improving exam performance, it is my personal belief that the appropriate use of humor in the classroom can help establish a constructive instructor-student relationship. When the instructor and students laugh together, it seems that a personal connection is formed that fosters a more participatory classroom. In other words, the instructor seems more approachable for questions and discussion.

When conducting my plant identification labs, I’ll occasionally make up silly puns involving the plant names. Sometimes I’ll get a chuckle; however, many times—after hearing crickets—I have to explain my own joke after which I may hear a few forced giggles out of pity. While I personally enjoy trying to be “punny” from time to time, students do seem to feel more comfortable answering and asking questions after having the chance to laugh at or (more commonly) make fun of my bad jokes.

Please share your personal experiences with classroom humor, and for your entertainment only, I’m going to share one of my favorites for when I teach the white ash tree.

As my students and I approach the aforementioned, enormous tree, I’ll say:

“Look everyone! There’s a big ash tree! Actually, it’s a big white ash! It’s so big, I’ll bet you can even see it at night…if there’s a full moon.”

(If you don’t get it, say “big ash tree” fast and out loud)