Radical Pedagogy

 

Radical Pedagogy (2006)

ISSN: 1524-6345


Bringing Life to Online Instruction with Humor

Mark A. Shatz, Ph.D.
Professor of Psychology
Department of Psychology
Ohio University-Zanesville
shatz@ohiou.edu

Frank M. LoSchiavo, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Psychology
Department of Psychology
Ohio University-Zanesville


Abstract

Based on our experience using humor as an instructional strategy in traditional and online courses, we explain how instructors can incorporate humor into online courses. We discuss the ways that humor can enhance online instruction and we describe guidelines for locating, selecting, developing, and integrating humor into online course components. We provide examples of humor used in lecture modules and examinations, and we identify resources that instructors can use to generate and refine their course materials.

Bringing Life to Online Instruction with Humor

    Of the personal dimensions of teaching, humor is the most human of them all. Teachers who value humor,

    who not only tolerate laughter and fun in their classrooms, but even invite them in and encourage them to

    stay, are perceived by students as being more interesting and relevant than those who appear grim and

    humorless (Kottler & Zehm, 2000: 16).


Teachers and students share the belief that learning should be fun. Award-winning educators encourage the use of humor to create an inviting classroom environment (e.g., Buskist, 2002; Roth, 1997), and students believe that classroom humor relieves stress, improves attention, and enhances learning (Gorham & Christophel, 1990; Wanzer & Frymier, 1999; White, 2001). Although many empirical studies concerning the educational benefits of humor are outdated, anecdotal, or correlational, most of the findings support the use of humor as an instructional strategy (e.g., Berk, 2000; Berk & Nanda, 1998; Ziv, 1988). As Berk and Nanda observed, “the process of generating creative strategies for using humor in college teaching has just begun” (p. 404), and additional research is needed to determine how the systematic use of humor affects instruction and learning.

In the first study of humor incorporated systematically into online instruction, we ( LoSchiavo & Shatz, 2005) tested the effectiveness of humor as an instructional strategy in an online general psychology course. We randomly assigned students to a standard section of the online course or to a section enhanced with additional humorous content. Humor significantly influenced student interest and participation but had no effect on overall course performance. In a follow-up survey, students in the humor-enhanced section were more likely to appreciate the humorous content, recommend that humor continue to be used, and agree that humorous content made the course more interesting. Humor also bridged the student-teacher gap by allowing students to view the instructor as more approachable. In the humor-enhanced section, student evaluation comments included “He was funny,” “The instructor made the course fun and interesting,” and “Extremely helpful and a fun guy to communicate with this way.”

In the traditional classroom, humor does not constitute radical pedagogy, as educational experts have long advocated its use. However, in the highly structured environment of virtual learning, instructors have fewer tools at their disposal. For example, online instructors cannot schedule breaks and serve snacks in an effort to lighten the classroom atmosphere and promote social interaction. Our empirical study demonstrated that the planned, systematic use of humor enhances the social aspects of online instruction.

Humor is not a pedagogical panacea, and the mere inclusion of humor will not assure that learning will occur. If humor is used too frequently or inappropriately, students might perceive important topics as trivial and the instructor as less-than-serious. However, the judicious, appropriate, and timely use of humor can augment teaching by increasing students’ interest and attention, and by reducing anxiety about “dread” subjects, such as statistics and research methods (Kher, Molstad, & Donahue, 1999; Korobkin, 1988).

The challenge for instructors teaching online courses is to learn to use humor to create interesting and inviting virtual learning environments while minimizing any potential pitfalls of humor as an instructional device. In a commentary noting the need for humor in online courses, James (2004) observed that “Because humor is one of the major traits of the best, most effective teachers, it is a characteristic that all teachers should want to hone, practice, and nurture, regardless of medium” (p. 94).

Although there are a variety of articles and books describing how to use humor in traditional courses (e.g., Berk, 1998; Garner, 2005; Hill, 1988; Powers, 2005; Weaver & Cotrell, 2001), there is no information concerning ways to incorporate humor into online instruction. Based on our experience using humor as an instructional strategy in traditional and online courses, we guide instructors through the process of integrating humor into online courses. We explain how the educational context influences students’ expectations and responses to humor, and we identify the types of humor most appropriate for online courses. We describe guidelines for locating, selecting, developing, and incorporating humor into lecture modules and examinations. We provide examples of humor used in online course materials, and we identify print and electronic resources that instructors can use to generate and refine their course materials.

Humor in Educational Settings

When selecting or preparing humor for the online course, the educational purpose of the humor is the most important consideration. As a pedagogical device, humor can promote various objectives, such as to increase student interest and attention, facilitate the student-teacher relationship, provide students with a “mental break,” or promote the understanding and retention of a concept. In contrast to humorists, who gauge success by laughter, educators measure the effectiveness of humor by how it promotes learning. Although humor can be used to increase students’ overall enjoyment of the online experience, most of the humor incorporated into an online course should serve an instructional purpose. Otherwise, the course material and the instructor might be perceived as “fluff.”

Although humor can foster a positive online environment, it is not a substitute for traditional instruction. For example, when discussing dreams, a psychology instructor might joke that Martha Stewart dreams about designing trendy prison jumpsuits. Although the joke is easy to understand, it lacks conceptual relevance, so it is unlikely to help students better understand the psychology of dreams (see Mayer, 2001, for a related discussion). In fact, the humor may pacify confused students, leaving them less likely to seek clarification when necessary. Olson and Clough (2003) noted that a potential consequence of the “education as entertainment” movement is that students may develop the belief that learning is easy.

As noted previously, the goal of pedagogical humor is not laughter, and there are two important reasons why instructors should not seek or expect big laughs. First, powerful humor can often overshadow an instructional objective. For example, if an instructor uses a very funny story to illustrate a concept, students are likely to remember the humor and forget the principle. Second, the structure of the typical joke (i.e., a setup followed by a punch line) limits the funniness of pedagogical humor. If instructors use humor that is related directly to course material, then they lose the flexibility of exaggerating or distorting the setup (i.e., modifying the factual information) to maximize the laugh.

The educational context also changes humor expectations. Audiences expect comedians to be funny while students usually expect their instructors to be scholarly, serious, and often boring. The lower humor threshold for educational settings benefits instructors in two ways. First, simpler forms of humor that would “bomb” in a comedy venue, such as word-play (e.g., puns, oxymorons) and clever or witty observations, can be used successfully in online courses. Second, lowered humor expectations also mean that students will likely appreciate any attempt at humor, and perceive the instructor as striving to make the course more interesting.

Instructors should also be aware that the educational setting influences the selection of humorous material. Recognition of the audience is the most important principle of humor writing, and humorists always target humor to the specific interests and background of an audience. When preparing humor for the online course, instructors must be student-oriented and recognize that certain types of humor will not work, such as references to outdated cultural icons or discipline-specific jokes. Although educational humor is most successful when targeted to the students, the humor should also fit the course material and reflect the instructor’s personality.

Another factor dictating the selection of humorous material is the target of the humor (e.g., people, places, things, ideas). The target is often a victim because most humor is the result of ridiculing or attacking the target. As Sankey (1998) observed, “if there’s no corpse, there’s usually no joke” (p. 29). Fortunately, most instructors recognize that potentially offensive humor, such as sexist or racist jokes, is not appropriate (Perlman & McCann, 1998). The safest target is the instructor, because self-deprecating humor avoids offending or alienating others, and allows students to view the teacher as more “human.”

The careful selection of humor targets is especially critical for online courses. When potentially “risky” humor is used in the traditional classroom setting, the instructor’s delivery (e.g., nonverbal gestures, timing) can signal an impending joke and potentially minimize any negative reactions. In addition, students provide immediate feedback that indicates whether the humor was appropriate and should be used again. In the online classroom, humor cannot be embellished by nonverbal cues or easily retracted therefore instructors must carefully consider how students might react before adding the humor to the online course.

To illustrate the principles of pedagogical humor, we will examine a commonly used joke for introducing the course and instructor. “Some of you might have heard that I am unfair, rigid, and boring. For those of you who have not talked to my wife…” The joke meets the criteria of effective pedagogical humor because it achieves an educational objective (i.e., the joke serves as an “icebreaker”), uses a safe humor target (i.e., the instructor), and will be readily appreciated by the students.

Locating Pedagogical Humor

A wide range of humor can be incorporated into the online course, including funny quotes, jokes, and cartoons, and in this section, we identify resources for locating pedagogical humor. When deciding which material to use for the online course, we strongly encourage instructors to consider the guidelines for pedagogical humor mentioned in the previous section. First, does the humor promote an educational objective? Second, will the students understand and appreciate the humor? Third, is the target of the humor appropriate for the course?

The Internet is the best resource for pedagogical humor, and although any search using a discipline and “humor” as descriptors will yield numerous web sites, we recommend more narrowly focused searches (i.e., “humor” and a specific discipline topic). Additional resources for pedagogical humor include supplemental instructional materials provided by book publishers and journals devoted to humorous research (e.g., Journal of Polymorphous Perversity, Annals of Improbable Research). When using humor from other sources, instructors need to adhere to copyright considerations.

Visual humor is especially effective in online courses, and cartoons, illustrations, and photographs, can easily be integrated throughout the course. Although visual humor is usually self-contained (i.e., a caption or the illustration delivers the punch line), there are several ways that instructors can enhance visual humor for the online environment. Visuals, such as photographs or illustrations, can be used as a punch line for a joke. For example, when discussing the difficulty of course examinations, the setup would be “And this is how students often feel after an exam…” with a photograph or cartoon of frighten individuals delivering the punch line. For this type of humor to be effective, the visual punch line needs to be hidden behind a hyperlink.

For the more adventurous instructor, photographs can also be easily “doctored” with editing software to produce a humorous result. For example, the first author posts a family portrait in which his beard is “cloned” onto each family member. Digital videotape cameras can also be used to produce brief instructional vignettes. We strongly believe that integrating personal photographs or “home movies” into online instruction adds a more personalized and intimate feel to the often sterile nature of online courses.

Given the abundance of pedagogical humor resources, instructors can use students to help identify and screen potential material. We use an extra-credit activity called the “Contributing Editor” that requires students to locate potential sources of humor on any course topic. Besides submitting a copy of the resource, students are required to submit a written report that identifies the source, the topic that is addressed, and a brief description of how the material relates to the course. We also set up discussion boards (e.g., “The After Hours Club,” “The Psychology Comedy Club”) to allow students the opportunity to post jokes, humorous observations concerning course topics, or links to humorous web sites. If students are used to assist with locating material, then we strongly encourage instructors to identify specific guidelines, such as the criteria described in the beginning of this section, to help students understand what types of humor are appropriate for the course.

Writing Pedagogical Humor

There are several benefits of instructors writing their own humor, such as adding a more personalized touch to the humor and better fitting the humor to match the tone and content of the course. To assist instructors with the preparation of original material or to edit the work of others, we describe briefly the process of humor writing. For a more detailed explanation of the techniques and principles of humor writing, instructors can refer to various comedy writing books (e.g., Carter, 2001; Helitzer & Shatz, 2005).

After a topic is identified as a possible humor target, the first step of writing humor is to generate material for possible jokes. Given the difficulty of constructing a successful joke, humor writers use a variety of brainstorming techniques, such as rants, top ten lists, mapping, and stream of consciousness, to generate ideas for potential jokes. We recommend a brainstorming strategy that identifies the associations and disassociations of a topic by listing people, clichés, phrases, and places that are analogous to and opposite of the subject (Perret, 1990).

To illustrate the associations/disassociations technique, we will use the set-up of “Freud’s Pet Peeves.” The process begins with the identification of things associated with Freud (e.g., patients freely associating while on the couch). The next step is to identify the opposites of each association (e.g., patients sleeping instead of talking). By looking at the associations and disassociations of the topic, we could create the following joke: Sigmund Freud’s major pet peeves were patients who fell asleep on the couch, drew on the ink blots, and complained about being charged for free association.

There are many ways to construct a joke, however, the most suitable joke formulas for the online course are word-play and exaggeration. A word-play joke involves the modification of a word, clichés, definition, common phrase, or concept. Examples of word-play pedagogical humor include silly names, funny unit subtitles, oxymorons, and factitious definitions. Word-play is a relatively simple form of humor, and instructors should expect smirks (or moans) rather than big laughs. Also, word-play jokes will only be successful when instructors follow the principle of “knowing your audience” (i.e., students must recognize the word, concept, or phrase that is being reformatted or embellished).

Exaggeration relies on a realistic setup followed by a punch line that overstates or understates the premise. Instructors can use exaggeration for self-deprecating humor or to distort numbers, concepts, phrases, findings, or theories. Exaggeration is an especially effective tool for transforming existing topics into setups that provide the opportunity to write humor that is more powerful.

The final step of humor writing is to edit the joke by following the four principles of “aggressive editing” (Sankey, 1998). First, a well-constructed joke is simple, clear, and uses as few words as possible (especially in the punch line). The goal is to get to the joke as soon as possible, and academicians frequently violate this principle by overwriting (as illustrated by this paper). Second, the funniest part of the punch line occurs at the last possible moment. Delaying the funniest wording until the end of a joke increases the tension that is necessary to produce surprise and laughter. Third, key words in the punch line do not appear in the setup, and specific terms are considered funnier than generic phrases (e.g., Tropicana is deemed funnier than orange juice). Fourth, any sequence of words, phrases, or jokes is always grouped as a set of three items. The “triple” is the foundation of many classic jokes, such as the “priest, minister, and rabbi” jokes, and the cadence produced by grouping three items is considered the ideal format for structuring and delivering a joke.

Guidelines for Using Pedagogical Humor

There are several ways to interject humor into instruction, and in this section, we offer suggestions for using pedagogical humor in online lectures and examinations.

The placement and duration of humor used in online lecture modules are critical to the flow of instruction. Short, simple jokes are most appropriate for the introduction and transitions while longer pieces are best placed at the end of a unit. Introductions can include a funny subtitle, a photograph or illustration with an added caption, a reformatted quoted, or exaggerated unit objectives. For example, an introduction to a research methods module could include an opening joke (e.g., “Today’s lecture will be an experiment–half of you will get real information while the other half will get a placebo.”) or a list of research questions yet to be answered with real and fictitious items (e.g., Is depression caused by drinking Pepsi Blue?).

Humor can allow students a brief “mental break” from an online lecture, and instructors can use transitions to illustrate a concept with topic-related tangents or self-deprecating stories. For example, the second author incorporates a running feature, called Frank’s Rants, into lecture modules as an opportunity to use humorous personal examples and commentary to expand on previously discussed lecture topics. By clearly identifying the tangent, students recognize that the rant is separate from the lecture. Nevertheless, because the rants tangentially reinforce course topics, the tangents continue to serve as teaching opportunities.

More elaborate humor, such as exaggeration (e.g., top ten lists, fictitious experiments) or links to related humor web sites, is best suited as unit closers. For example, the closers for a lecture module on abnormal psychology could be a series of “new” disorders, a collection of exaggerated quotes from famous therapists, or list of factitious abnormal psychology books. When using more elaborate humor, we often ask students to add their own contributions by posting ideas in a discussion board.

Although humor may not significantly reduce test anxiety or improve performance (McMorris Boothroyd, & Pietrangelo, 1997), we believe that the occasional use of humor in examinations is appropriate under certain conditions. First, students should be forewarned that humor will be incorporated into the examinations (e.g., choice “e” is always a joke and never the correct answer). Second, the addition of humor should not interfere with the students’ ability to complete the test in the allotted time. We recommend several approaches for incorporating humor into online examinations.

Practice quizzes and examinations offer an excellent opportunity to incorporate humor without adversely affecting students’ grades. For example, the second author uses a 10-item true-false practice quiz after each course module. Approximately two items on each quiz are reformatted by using word-play or exaggeration to “play off” the preceding item. For example, the follow-up item to “Evolutionary psychologists believe that nature is more important than nurture” is “Evolutionary psychologists believe that nature will beat nurture in 271,876 rounds of evolution.”

For instructors who are comfortable using humor in course examinations, there are several approaches for adding humor to multiple-choice tests. First, an additional distracter (e.g., choice “e”), such as a joke at the expense of the instructor, can be added to select items. Second, names that appear in items can be reformatted by inserting the instructor's name or creating fictitious names. Third, a “final” item can be added with the setup “The test is over and you...” with funny distracters targeted to the students, instructor, or course. (See Berk, 2000 for additional strategies for infusing humor into multiple-choice examinations.)

Conclusion

Although pedagogical humor is beneficial, instructors must recognize that humor can be either a social lubricant or irritant. Humor that is derogatory or ridiculing has no place in an educational setting, while “over-the-top” humor may be viewed as distracting, annoying, or unnecessary. Even when humor is used appropriately, too much of a good thing can result in the students perceiving the material as frivolous and the instructor being viewed as a jokester rather than a scholar.

Additional research is needed to better understand how humor affects teaching and learning while online. Also, information is required to determine how pedagogical humor impacts social interactions and alters students’ perceptions of the instructor’s immediacy or social distance.

When used appropriately, pedagogical humor has the potential to reduce student anxiety concerning difficult subjects, make challenging concepts clearer and more memorable, and improve the student-teacher relationship. Humor can also help create an online atmosphere that encourages participation, creativity, and exploration. Instructors do not have to become “class clowns” or entertainers to achieve the benefits of pedagogical humor. The judicious, appropriate, and timely use of humor allows instructors to teach and model a critical educational lesson – learning is fun.

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