This is Serious – Humour Enhances Learning

Making your students laugh can help you get your message across in a way that means they may not even realise they’re learning something! There are some non-threatening ways that even the most serious of educators can find their funny.

Why use humour in your teaching?

There’s quite a bit of evidence that supports the use of humour in teaching, including a framework – the Instructional Humor Processing Theory (Wanzer et al 2010) – that investigates why some educators are funny and others aren’t. Available research shows that humour:

You’re not going to make your students fall in love with your topic (at least not most of them), so wouldn’t you rather make them feel relaxed and comfortable rather than fearful or angry?

The 4Y framework

Professor Vince Mitchell and I were asked to contribute a chapter to a book on teaching marketing and advertising with a sense of humour earlier this year. We drew on this research and our own teaching experience (including, coincidentally, both of us having a crack at stand-up comedy) and developed a simple framework for using humour in teaching. 

Since we work in the marketing discipline, home of the 4Ps – product, price, place and promotion – we came up with the 4Ys of teaching with humour – you, your students, your content and your process. While our theory was developed specifically for teaching marketing, we believe it has application across academic disciplines.

Importantly, the 4Ys framework focuses attention away from you having to be a comedian and onto other elements of teaching and learning and sources of humour. 

4Ys Framework Mitchell & Welling 2021

Of course, if you’re naturally funny, it’s going to help. But we can all find the funny within us by drawing on a range of techniques that best suit our style as a teacher.

One way to do this is to use yourself as an example. If you have a funny story that can help explain a concept, tell it. Students often seem surprised that their lecturer was once young so stories about when you were a student can help. 

You can acknowledge the age difference between you and your students and subtly use it to establish your level of knowledge. For example: “When I first learned about marketing back in the Age of the Dinosaurs, the 4Ps were a relatively new concept; despite all the changes in marketing and technology and permutations using different letters of the alphabet – Exhibit A, the 4 Cs – the 4Ps have stood the test of time.”

Your students

Two universal truths about students are that they like to have a laugh and they think they have a great sense of humour. You can use that to your advantage.

To get the most from students themselves being a source of humour, part of the answer is to give already funny students the space and encouragement to be funny. 

Using student examples can help open up a class early in the semester. Sharing a story or two from past semesters sends the message that it’s appropriate and desired that students interact and share in class. You may be surprised at how funny some students’ stories can be!

Your content

Using notions of primacy and recency, opening and closing lectures with humour not only grabs attention at the beginning of the class, but starts things up and sends students out of the class with a smile. This can be a funny video, a quirky quote flashed up on the screen or even a song that has lyrics that, at a stretch, could apply to the day’s topic.

Finding humourous/funny ads to illustrate points in lectures is a no-brainer. As with so many things, YouTube is a prolific source of humorous TV and social media ads on nearly every topic. Check out our accompanying animation for a couple of examples.

Your teaching process 

Although education is serious business, we need to realize that no one’s learning much if they aren’t enjoying the process.

Making rules and breaking them when it’s sensible to do so can make you more relatable. For example, if you have a ‘no Facebook in class’ rule (which, let’s face it, is impossible to police when you’re standing up the front of a seminar room looking at the back of a sea of laptops), you can break it by encouraging students to show something from Facebook or Instagram, etc. via screen-sharing to illustrate a point your talking about in class.

One way to embed the power of humour into your teaching process is to build it into your assignments. Many marketing assignments have an ‘audience engagement’ or ‘creativity’ component to them. Make it clear that if an assignment makes you laugh out loud while you’re marking it, you’ll give it high marks on that part of the rubric.

These are just a few examples of how this framework can be used to keep students laughing – and learning.

Adding humour to your teaching

Banner photo credit: Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

About the author

Ray is a lecturer and digital content creator and marketer. His research interests include digital ethics, influencers and self-branding, and he is a co-author of a paper that is the most-cited and most-read article in the Journal of Celebrity Studies. He is also the author of Digital Disruption and Transformation: Lessons from History

Vincent Mitchell is Professor of Marketing at The University of Sydney Business School. With over 200 academic and practitioner papers in journals such as Harvard Business Review and the Journal of Consumer Psychology, and 12 Best Paper Awards he is in the top 1% of cited marketing academics with and h index of 62. As a passionate educator, he has published over 25 articles in the area of education and his book ‘Real People, Real Decisions’ won Financial Times/Pearson Prentice Hall Higher Education Book of the Year Award 2010 is now in its 3rd edition. His research focuses on consumer marketplace engagement problems such as; risk, confusion, ethics and personal data privacy.

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