Radical Pedagogy


Radical Pedagogy (2005)

ISSN: 1524-6345

Humor, Analogy, and Metaphor: H.A.M. it up in Teaching

Randy Garner
Sam Houston State University


The proper use of humor, analogy, and metaphor appropriate to the topic can provide benefits in the college classroom. Better comprehension, increased retention of material, and a more comfortable learning environment have all been attributed to the effective use of these strategies. Humor is valued by teachers and students and has been shown to enhance learning and reduce anxiety. Analogies and metaphors aid students’ in relating an unfamiliar concept to one that may be more recognizable, improving their understanding and increasing retention. Implications of the use of humor, analogy, and metaphor in the classroom are discussed.

As educators, we frequently search for more effective methods of communicating information and helping students to learn. Mastery of the subject matter presented in the classroom is essential to the goal of education; however, the way that information is presented to the student can impact their learning (Berk, 1998). Several studies (see Garner, in press) have found that a number of strategies can be used to help students better assimilate and retain information. Among those strategies are the effective use of humor, analogy, and metaphor.

Humor in Teaching

Humor has been defined as “the mental faculty of discovering, expressing or appreciating something that is comical, amusing, or absurdly incongruous” (Merriam-Webster, 2001, p.564). Humor has also been described as a “sense,” as in the term, “sense of humor.” As with any sense, however—such as taste or smell—individuals may have differing levels of receptivity; similarly, humor can be highly personal, contextual, and subjective. Humor that is of poor taste or is insulting can be stifling rather than enlightening (Brown, 1995; Edwards & Gibboney, 1992; Loomans & Kolberg, 1993). Simple joke-telling does not possess the attributes that well-planned and content-specific humor adds to the learning environment (Garner, in press).

Humor is most effective when it is appropriate to the audience, targeted to the topic, and placed in the context of the learning experience. As an example, when discussing the paucity of empirical studies that offer negative findings (cases where the hypothesis is not supported), I present a humorous story to my research methods class. This tale involves two prisoners captive in a desert prison. One of the prisoners indicates his intention to escape but fails to convince the other to go along. After making his escape, this prisoner is quickly captured and returned to the prison cell, reporting that his attempt was futile as there was a vast desert in every direction. The prisoner that remained indicated that he knew this all along, as he had previously attempted to escape and was also quickly captured. Incredulous, the newly captured prisoner asked why he was not told of this information before his recent attempt; whereupon the remark was offered, “you know that no one ever publishes negative results!” As corny as this story may seem, it always inspires a chuckle and offers a better understanding of the concept of null results.

The use of humor as a pedagogical tool has been shown to reduce classroom anxiety, create a more positive atmosphere, as well as facilitate the learning process (Berk, 1996, 1998; Garner, 2003, in press; Glenn, 2002; Hill, 1988; Pollio & Humphreys, 1996). Garner (in press) found that participants who were exposed to a series of lectures containing course-specific humor demonstrated increased retention of the course-content information as compared to those who received the same material without the infusion of humor. In addition to increasing retention, this approach resulted in higher overall ratings of the course and better instructor evaluations. Other researchers have found that humor can result in better information recall (Hill, 1988) and can increase long term retention (Glenn, 2002).

According to Glenn (2002), humor may physiologically help to connect left-brain activities with the right-brained creative side. This connection may allow students to experience a “refreshing pause” (Glenn) and better assimilate the information presented. In his book, Anatomy of an Illness, Norman Cousins (1991) discusses the effects of humor. Cousins offers that humor can reduce anxiety, help relieve stress, and increase mental sharpness; characteristics that can improve learning (Glenn, 2002) and are desirable in a pedagogical setting.

Additionally, students tend to value and appreciate teachers who can effectively use humor in their instruction (Garner, in press). Lowman (1994) found that effective college teachers were often described by their students as “enthusiastic” and those who use humor in their instruction were rated more highly. When asked to describe the positive attributes of quality teachers, frequently students mention a “sense of humor” (Brown & Tomlin, 1996; Kelly & Kelly, 1982). A review of the teaching philosophies of highly-rated teachers finds the use of humor as an important component of their teaching strategies. Humor can increase (Civikly, 1986) and sustain (Dodge & Rossett, 1982) student interest in learning and provides a means to engage in divergent thinking. Instructors’ use of effective humor in the classroom can foster mutual respect (Kher, Molstad, & Donahue, 1999), provide commonalities and connections between the instructor and students (Pollio & Humphreys, 1996) and even increase class attendance (Devadoss & Foltz, 1996; Romer, 1993; White, 1992). According to Bergen (1992), “teachers who use strategies that promote the connection between humor and learning usually provide students with their best school experiences” (p.106).

Analogy and Metaphor

For the purpose of this discussion metaphor and analogy will be considered together. A metaphor allows the teacher to use an idea, word, phrase, or object in place of another to suggest a likeness between them. An analogy, although technically distinct, is really only an extended metaphor (Longknife & Sullivan, 2002). Metaphor and analogy have historically been used as an effective teaching tool. Greek myths, religious texts, and fairytales all use metaphor, analogy, and parables to teach and help us learn expected conduct (Gorden, 1978). The use of metaphor and analogy is pervasive in society in both language and communication. When thoughts and ideas are paraphrased, as may occur in the classroom, the uses of metaphorical analogies are often involved (Lakeoff & Johnson, 1980). Hoffman (1983) estimates that the average English-speaker uses over 3,000 metaphors per week and suggests we can occasionally use four metaphors per minute in everyday conversation. Lakeoff and Johnson (1980) suggest the use of analogy and metaphor serves as a basis for everyday cognition and thus is well suited for the classroom. That is, these authors believe that we often think and process information in terms of metaphorical concepts and examples. Bowers (1993) suggests that all human thinking is metaphorical at its core and the use of metaphor in pedagogy is innate.

According to the National Research Council (2000) the effective use of metaphors and analogies is an important educational strategy. Interestingly, even the concept of learning itself is described by numerous metaphors (e.g., planting flowers, switching on a light bulb, peeling an onion, a quest, etc.). In teaching, using either analogy or metaphor allows the instructor to relate a potentially unfamiliar idea with that which is familiar. For many instructors the objective for doing so is to transform a foreign concept to one that may be more recognizable to the student. Interestingly, the Greek root of metaphor is “metapherein,” meaning to transfer; such as when one attempts to transfer the understanding or experience of one thing by relating it in terms of another.

Pedagogical use of analogy and metaphor can enhance learning and retention, but they must have a high degree of resonance for the listener. Students must be able to recognize the meaning that is being conveyed and its relevance to the issue at hand. Metaphors or analogies must be based on something that is familiar to the student. Glynn and Takahashi (1998) indicate that instructional use of analogies and metaphors must be utilized carefully, as incorrect use or a failure to appreciate the preconceptions that students may possess can lead to greater rather than less confusion. To be most effective, an analogy or metaphor must transfer ideas from a familiar concept to one that is less familiar or unknown. According to Bowers (1993) the metaphorical relationship must be clear and accurate—possessing face validity. Properly used, metaphors and analogies can provide a type of shorthand to help define the intangible or abstract. However, the process of selecting appropriate analogies or metaphors is necessarily constrained by the understanding or perceptions of learners. Teachers must ensure that the coherence of the metaphor is accurate and clear; if not, the intended effect of greater understanding of the topic or issue can be lost (Earle, 1995).

Metaphors that are relevant to students’ interests offer maximum effectiveness. A sound metaphorical selection can assist a student in absorbing and assimilating information (Williams, 1986). Educators are most effective when they relate the concept or theory that is being discussed to a metaphoric example that is understood within the framework and context of the student’s base of knowledge.

Williams (1986) suggests that vivid metaphors have the capability to teach in a way that is not always available with the use of words alone. That is, rather than offer a word-only definition of a new term or concept, the use of a related example using a metaphor can be very helpful to enhance students understanding. Metaphors that are creatively derived and appropriately applied can augment a students’ critical comprehension of new information (Hoffman, 1983). The application of metaphor in teaching can enhance the learning process by creating vivid imagery that establishes connections between concepts and a students’ prior learning or life experiences (Lawler, 1999). Earle (1995) cautioned against the use of mixed metaphors or imprecise analogies. Unfocused analogical and metaphorical contrasts can adversely impact students’ understanding, perceptions, and actions, resulting in unintentional consequences. Metaphors used in teaching are most helpful when they effectively and accurately communicate their intended relationship between the better and lesser know concepts. If the metaphorical example is subject to varying interpretations, its effectiveness is significantly diminished. The use of analogies or metaphors that are abstract or overly complex are also less effective (Griffey, Housner, & Williams, 1986). A useful metaphorical contrast should posses the fit, relevance, and accuracy to contribute to the intended pedagogical effect of providing the student with greater understanding and clarity.

Personal Experience

I frequently use humor, metaphorical examples, and analogies when teaching graduate courses; however, I must remain cognizant that some students are not attuned with my “personal sense of funny.” This can be especially true if a large portion of the class is composed of students with widely divergent backgrounds or foreign students who have not been ensconced in the same cultural climate. As a result, my choices in technique and examples are carefully selected to provide the greatest appeal for the widest audience.

Conclusions & Implications

The use of humor, analogy, and metaphor can be valuable in the learning process. From a psychological perspective, humor, analogy and metaphor can be viewed as nonthreatening to ones self-esteem; thus, bypassing the natural resistance to change (Earle, 1995). Glenn (2002) has suggested that there is frequently a link between humor and the use of metaphors in learning. He reported that the use of metaphors and other strategies can “increase retention by as much as 40%” (p.1). Similarly, Hill (1988) found humor coupled with the use of analogy and metaphor provided students with added positive associations and they were more likely to remember information. In using humor, analogy, and metaphor in teaching, however, one must recognize that differences in culture, age, belief, gender, and other distinctions can influence how the information is perceived. The effective use of humor, analogy, and metaphor by teachers can increase student attention, reduce anxiety, improve critical thinking, enhance concept learning, and create a positive classroom environment (e.g., Bryant and Zillman, 1988; Bryant, Comisky, Crane, & Zillman, 1980; Garner, 2003, in press). Students report that teachers who help them learn by using such strategies create a less intimidating environment that is more relaxed and allows the students to become better listeners. As a result, there is an increased level of comprehension and cognitive retention—and of equal importance—a more enjoyable class for the students and the instructor.


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