Category Archives: 2. Featured Articles

The Nutty Professor: Pedagogy of Classroom Humor

by Janet Mizrahi, The Guffey Team

The longer I teach, the more I am thankful for my sense of humor. Not only do I need it to get through teaching ten courses each year—I have found my students need a laugh sometimes, too. I’m no Amy Schumer or Joan Rivers, but I do crack wise in my classroom upon occasion, and I have come to believe that doing so is a crucial aspect of my pedagogy.

I’m not alone in that assessment. Much research has reported the benefits of using humor in the classroom. It is well documented, for example, that humans like to laugh—doing so alleviates boredom, surprises us, and creates an enjoyable experience, all of which can help engender a positive learning atmosphere. Perhaps even more important is that humor disables the threat response. The student/professor relationship can be intimidating, as can new subject matter. By being funny at times, a professor can be seen as less of a threat, allowing students to connect with both the subject matter and the deliverer of that information.

In addition, humor can enhance boring or dreaded subjects. None of us wants to admit that our subject inspires snoozing or fear, but learning can be daunting, and humor can help defuse that sentiment. Likewise, humor helps capture student interest; a funny story may encourage students to connect with subject matter. Finally, humor increases students’ attention. A witty remark mid-lecture can reignite most students’ wandering attention and even make them want to retell a joke. Such retelling is the key to remembering, a goal we all want to achieve with our students.

Integrating humor into your classroom

Most of us who teach college students realize that much of what we do in the classroom is a performance, and that the manner in which we deliver information is just as important as that information itself. Humor can be part of that performance. However, experts advise starting early in the semester; you need to prime your students to expect humor so they know it’s okay to laugh. In fact, tell them so!

While you want to always be genuine, use any trick you think will work. Can you do a great English or Australian accent? Use it! Try exaggerating where appropriate (“I will give the first person to answer the next question an A in the class… kidding! Or am I?”) If a prepared or spontaneous joke doesn’t elicit a reaction, recover with a quick reaction: “Hey, that was supposed to be funny—you guys are a tough audience!” I’ve heard of professors using props such as balloons with content written on them, referring to iconic music or actors known to the younger generation, and deliberately flubbing up technical devices, all to get a laugh.

If none of those suggestions appeal to you, below are some alternate ways to include humor in your teaching style.

  • Develop funny stories for specific topics. Just like no standup comic would perform cold, prepare your bits ahead of time. Alter them after you learn what works and what doesn’t.
  • Employ self-deprecating humor in small doses. Many comedians are the brunt of their own jokes. Personally, I find this style of humor quite useful. For example, when I teach résumé writing, I use my own [somewhat ancient] college history as an example. When I write the dates I received my degrees, I cover my mouth and mumble, “Nineteen blah-blah-blah.” The students always laugh.
  • Make your mistakes funny. Acknowledging your own errors can help humanize you and therefore create a bond between you and the class.
  • Use humor in bits and pieces. You don’t want to appear to be clownish or unprofessional, so be judicious with the timing and frequency of your humor.

Of course, there are some taboos to be aware of when you use humor.

  • Never, never, never make a student the butt of a joke. Once the students have heard a classmate ridiculed, every one of them will all be wary of becoming the next victim, activating the threat response and reducing your ability to connect with your audience.
  • Avoid “insult comedy” for the same reason. Offensive remarks that refer to age, ethnicity, physical appearance, religion, sexual orientation, or violence should be off the table.
  • Steer clear of alcohol and drugs as a topic. They both are landmines that can lead to unintended consequences.

One final piece of advice: Realize that your humor will not work every time. Not every funny comment will garner a laugh, and not every class can be won over. However, if you’re at all like me, you’ll have more fun if you are enjoying yourself on the stage that is our classroom… and hopefully, so will your students!

Do you use humor in your classroom? Tell us about it!

Talk Among Yourselves: Leading Discussions to Foster Active Learning

Remember the iconic SNL bit in which Mike Meyers, dressed as Linda Richman, assigns a topic and says, “Discuss among yourselves”? As funny as the skit was, it’s no primer for leading discussions in the college classroom.

Classroom discussions have many beneficial learning outcomes. Students share perspectives by phrasing responses in ways their peers can understand. Good discussions can trigger critical thinking and the understanding that people experience events differently. Likewise, classroom interaction can be a great way to model civil discourse.

But just what does it take to encourage students to actively engage and participate in class discussions? Experts agree that much of the responsibility lies with instructors. Research has shown that the discussion leader should be a moderator who guides but who does not control, who challenges but who does not direct. Therefore, it makes sense that instructors should plan discussions around learning outcomes to guarantee that the topic is adequately covered. When the discussion is in full force, the instructor should continually monitor its effectiveness by gently steering students toward addressing specific ideas and ensuring that all students contribute.

These pointers can help you become a more effective discussion facilitator.

Clarify when necessary. Sometimes students have trouble verbalizing what they mean. Echo the student’s comment and subtly reword it for clarity.

Consider group dynamics. Make sure no one student dominates the discussion, and invite non-participators to join in.

Correct faulty information. Students want to leave a discussion knowing they have obtained correct information relevant to course content. If a student makes an incorrect statement, elicit the help of others in the class to correct it before you step in… but if no good response is made, step in you must!

Foster participation. Students appreciate discussions more when their contributions are affirmed. Thank speakers for their input.

Listen more, speak less. Encourage student participation by listening more than talking.

Pose clear questions. Avoid long, complex phrasing and jargon students may not understand. Ask open-ended questions that encourage students to think.

Sequence questions. Prepare questions that build toward the lesson’s objectives. Good discussions need to stay on track and focus on the topic.

Show respect. Students need to feel they can trust the instructor to be open during discussions. Never be condescending; on the other hand, do not praise where none is deserved.

Spark discussion. Insert an occasional controversial statement that will stimulate debate. Playing the devil’s advocate can be a useful strategy.

How do you foster lively discussions? Write us with your classroom experiences!

Perfecting Peer Editing

by Dana Loewy, the Guffey Team

Many studies point to the benefits of peer editing, but I admit to sometimes having my doubts after seeing the results of peer editing sessions in my lower division classes. However, I’ve come up with a series of steps that result in better outcomes.

Step 1  I collect first drafts and skim the content without grading. Instead, I compile a list of the most common misunderstandings and errors, such as lack of comprehension of the assignment, format, or mechanics. After the session, I e-mail or post the revision tips, or I bring them to the editing session, depending on the course format, online or in-class.

Step 2 I scramble the unmarked first drafts and distribute them among students so that no one reviews his or her own document. I tell the students to look for specific features, but not all at once. Rather, I announce the feature to examine, say, format. I request that they mark up the document. Then I give students time to evaluate the layout and formatting and invite questions, answering them when they are relevant. Such instances present a wonderful teachable moment! We move from feature to feature so students read the document looking only at the single element we are scrutinizing. Students are engaged and actively learning.

Step 3  When we’ve gone through all the elements, I ask each editor to jot down 2-3 positive aspects of the document they reviewed and 2-3 aspects that needed improvement. Time permitting, I ask students to pass on the reviewed documents two seats down to a second editor, again making sure that no one revises his or her own writing.

Step 4  After the second round of editing, the marked-up documents are returned to their authors, who complete their revisions at home and bring the second draft to the next class session—with the marked-up first draft stapled to the revised version.

This staged editing procedure has many benefits for students. Because they more readily find errors in their peers’ writing than in their own, reading other students’ writing provides them with perspective on their own work. Likewise, students benefit from my instructions directing them to pay attention to specific elements I’ll be evaluating when I grade the assignment.

For instructors, the plusses of this process are also clear. Most important, I find the work I grade much improved. Additionally, students appreciate the “freebie” of being able to revise their writing at home—they even view me as more supportive to their efforts, a real bonus! From a pedagogical standpoint, the guided revision puts the onus on students to do the work. And while some go to the writing center where they may receive too much help, they are learning, which is what counts!

Ultimately, I have found that peer editing can be an invaluable teaching tool.


How do you incorporate peer editing into your classroom? Share your stories