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Science & Tech

How to Use Humor to Teach: 4 Tips for Using Humor to Educate

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 9, 2020 • 2 min read

A sense of humor can be an effective teaching tool in any learning environment. Whether you’re teaching middle school, high school, or college (or simply a public speaker trying to educate a varied audience), the use of humor can work well when it comes to listener or student engagement.

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Neil deGrasse Tyson Teaches Scientific Thinking and CommunicationNeil deGrasse Tyson Teaches Scientific Thinking and Communication

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Why Is It Beneficial to Incorporate Humor Into Education?

The main benefit of incorporating humor into education is that it can potentially help students better retain knowledge. Laughter releases the neurotransmitter dopamine, which activates the reward system in our brains. When this happens, your long-term memory and goal-oriented motivations are stimulated, which means you not only have the drive to learn more, but your mind can hold onto it longer. School teachers, speakers, and professors of higher education who struggle with classroom management or creating a more open environment can use humor to become more effective teachers.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson Shares Why Humor Is Fundamental to His Communication

How to Incorporate Humor Into Your Teaching

Research studies, like Avner Ziv’s Teaching and Learning With Humor: Experiment and Replication, published in The Journal of Experimental Education (1988), outline proven experiments demonstrating the effectiveness of humor in teaching. Telling funny stories or playing humorous games can help hold the students’ attention better, especially when teaching “dry” subject matter. Check out these tips on how to use humor as one of your teaching strategies:

  1. Bring content to life. Instructor humor can positively affect the learning process, whether you’re teaching kindergartners or college students. You can even use costumes, games, or other props to enhance your teaching style. Interactive play can also help retention by increasing engagement in the topics at hand.
  2. Observe stand-up comics. Good comedians are engaging performers who hold their audiences in the palms of their hands. When you watch stand-up, you can learn a lot about riffing on news headlines and pop culture, not to mention spotting things the rest of us normally miss. Comics are excellent communicators who use rhythm, tone, and powers of observation. You can learn a lot from them, too, particularly when it comes to humor.
  3. Avoid cruel humor. Appropriate humor can foster a good learning environment and establish a sense of community, creating a free space for critical thinking. When people feel safe and comfortable, they’re more open to learning and retention. Avoid using cruel, inappropriate humor because it can be isolating for certain individuals, or make an entire classroom uncomfortable. This type of humor can be distracting in educational settings and interfere with student learning. Keep the jokes lighthearted and on topic.
  4. Find the balance. While adding humor to your lesson plan can have many positive effects, adding too much humor can become a distraction for students or learners, or dilute the effectiveness of relevant, specific humor. Too many joke attempts may make the classroom feel like an open-mic, which can detract from the more salient points you’re trying to make.
Neil deGrasse Tyson Teaches Scientific Thinking and Communication
Neil deGrasse Tyson Teaches Scientific Thinking and Communication
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