The Art of Classroom Humor: Part 3

November 18, 2016 Justin Meyer


Capture.PNGIf you have read my previous posts, you understand that my whole approach to using humor is to engage students. Telling jokes in your class isn’t likely to cause students to do miraculously better on their homework, quizzes, or exams, per se. But there will be a few jokes that serve as humorous mnemonic devices that students will recall when needed. In this post, I am going to explore another facet of engagement which goes hand-in-hand with humor, but does not require you to be funny—so the pressure’s off if you’re reticent about injecting humor. Let’s start by looking at the Venn diagram; on the left side you have your course content, and on the right side there is student engagement. The sweet spot in the middle—with the happy face—is optimal student engagement; that golden ring all of us seek. Two ingredients feed into one another. One of the two, delivery, can stand on its own, independent from humor. But humor, to have the maximum impact needs good delivery. So let’s de-couple humor from delivery and explore how, if you master delivery, your overall engagement will rise with or without humor.

We have all had teachers and professors that were as dry as hydrophobic sand with their delivery of course content. Think back to your undergraduate days—were you engaged by the traditional sage-on-stage model of instruction? I am going to express an opinion here; I think that model is dead. It was killed by numerous cultural influences, not the least of which was Web 2.0—when the internet shifted from a more passive medium to one that enabled person-to-person interaction on a scale unimaginable just ten years ago. And now, we’ve moved from Web 2.0 to the Internet of Things where information, communication, and entertainment have all mingled. The fight for gaining student mindshare is extremely difficult. What this means for educators is something we’re not entirely comfortable with—we have to be edutainers. Here’s why: If we are presenting material to a class, it isn’t a far stretch to say that we are performing in front of our students—they are our audience. (Albeit a captive audience, but an audience nonetheless.) Let’s look at ways to enhance our ability to reach the sweet spot of optimal student engagement by focusing on how we physically present course material—with or without humor.

Get Moving

Apparently, there is an online site that consists of a camera streaming a cornfield in Iowa so you can ‘watch the corn grow.’ I say "apparently" because I don’t have much interest in this, and have never checked it out. Here’s my advice: Don’t be a corn stalk--an instructor that hides behind a podium for the entire class might be about as engaging as rows of corn growing to students. You can move a little, such as walking around to different students, or you can move around a bit more unpredictably. I have found there are small but powerful ways to make me a moving target.

Step One: Unplug

The most apparent and most straightforward way to gain mobility is not physically to tether yourself to a computer or workstation. If you are giving a basic PowerPoint presentation, use a remote to advance slides and move around the room. Don’t just stand off to the side and use a laser pointer to point at the words on the screen. Walk among the students in the class, ask for answers directly from the students next to you. If you must stay connected to your computer or tablet, explore some wireless options. There are some options out there that can allow you to connect wirelessly to a projector or a hub connected to a projector. If you’re unsure of the technology that might be right for you, connect with your school’s IT team.

Beware of the chalk or whiteboard. You are moving around as you write, but not in any way that is very interesting (unless you decide to sell advertising space on your back). If you have the means, make the switch to a tablet, or even to an overhead projector (if you can locate one). However, If you are limited to a chalkboard or white board, remember to walk among your students after you are finished at the board. As students take notes, walk and talk—try to get a discussion going before going back to the front.

Step Two: Become the Laser Pointer

Laser pointers are a great tool, but not when the presenter stands off to the side and continuously points at the screen. You’re not conducting a sing-along in which students are following the bouncing ball. You don’t need to remind the class to read lines on the screen left to right, top to bottom. You will gain more mobility by being the laser pointer. Walk up to the screen and point out where students should focus. Yes putting yourself into the path of the projector will make you look weird with the bright light hitting you, but in most cases, this can be avoided.

Sounds good, right? But what if, like me, you often teach in a lecture hall where the projector screen is eight feet off the floor. I am a tall guy, but even an NBA player couldn’t cover the top of the screen, but I have found that standing back and pointing in the general direction works fine. If you can’t reach the screen, a pointer-stick is still an excellent tool. (A person wielding a stick can be useful for keeping students alert.)

Step Three: Flap Those Arms

As a chemistry instructor, I know educators STEM disciplines need to reference their notes and equations. It’s hard to move about, but in these situations don’t forget to use your hands whenever possible. It’s something simple, but much more engaging than an instructor being hunched over a podium or computer. Remember to look up often, make eye contact when possible, and use your arms to indicate directions. For example, if a diagram procedes to the right, point that way as you say it.

Step Four: Interact With the Room

I gave a lesson on activation energy, and I decided to use an analogy in which I was a set of reactants and to become different products I needed to get to the other side of a bench—the bench being a metaphor of activation energy. Moving higher up the bench, correlated to an increase in activation energy. Now while I was talking about this, I proceeded to sort of climb/roll onto the bench and across to the other side. After I did that I thought, “Why the heck did I do that?” I envisioned myself looking like a seal trying to get up on a rock, or a beached whale. However, a couple of days later I was waiting with my students to get into the classroom. I stood inconspicuously behind the crowd and overheard one student telling another about my bench antics. “I didn’t know what he was thinking,” the one student remarked. The other responded by stating, “You won’t forget what activation energy is, will you?”

So that’s how you stop being a corn stalk and become a free-range educator. I have a few more ideas that do not involve movement but will also enhance your ability to deliver content engagingly.

Face Your Class

Stand up comics limit their movements and chain themselves to a mic, which I recommend against in a classroom setting, but the one thing they and every other stage performer knows is always to face their audience. Keeping your eyes on your students and not on something else—like the things mentioned above—accomplishes two things: 1) you appear engaged and that signal will be picked up by your students; 2) the more you look at them, the less likely they are to zone out and start texting or playing solitaire. After all, you’re watching.

Use Your Voice

This may be the most challenging thing to do, but possibly the most significant change you can make. Speaking clearly, and with inflection, staves off sounding like Ben Stein in "Ferris Bueller’s Day Off." So unless you want to check to see if Bueller is present in class (a classic scene that totally demonstrates the importance of this), spend time talking in front of a mirror or practicing in front of loved ones (I used to read from my chemistry book to my two-year-old daughter, who doesn’t like the story of Gold Oxidation and the Three Bariums?). Don’t get discouraged, lively vocalization techniques are not learned overnight, but through dedicated practice.

Here’s an advanced trick for the brave—work on some impressions. You may not actually use your John Wayne impression in class, but it can help with being able to control your voice. And, it doesn’t have to be someone well known—maybe it’s a public speaker that has a certain way of ending sentences. Practicing their style will effect your own. (Full disclosure: I used to practice sounding like Mickey Mouse or Kermit, the frog—I have kids…)

Interact With the Class

You may not always be able to have students take part in your presentation, but if you can get the class to interact verbally with you during a class it makes a huge difference. It can be so frustrating when you ask a straightforward question to “warm up the crowd,” but nobody is brave enough to answer. Instead of getting annoyed—which will not help engagement, find ways to draw the class into answering. The best way to do this is to encourage your students. For example, if there are only two answers I am quick to point out that the class has a 50/50 shot. And if someone guesses the wrong answers, I joke that they were so close, and to try again. Another tactic I will use is leading them into an answer by giving an extremely over-the-top hint, such as, “….the answer starts with Pr- and ends with –oducts.” It’s more engaging than just giving the answer, and worth a chuckle every time. If you do ask a question, remember to give students enough time to answer, but not too much. There is a fine line between an awkward silence, and not giving a student enough time to work of the courage to speak up.

Remember, it takes practice and patience to become an outstanding presenter/performer. How you teach is just as important as what you teach. Gaining student mindshare is a serious problem, but the good news is that there are steps you can implement as soon as your next class and you’ll quickly see the difference.

Read Part 1Part 2, Part 4, or Part 5.

Do you have a special technique for keeping yourself active while you teach? Share it with us in the Comments below.

Image Credit: Justin Meyer


About the Author

Senior Lecturer of Chemistry //

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