Like many college instructors, I often use humor to keep my students awake and engaged in classroom discussions. Done correctly, this tactic can be an effective tool for grabbing students’ attention and encouraging their active participation. Done poorly, this tactic can have the unintended consequences of alienating some students and/or causing them to withdraw from discussions. Below are a few tips that may help instructors bring the funny back into the college classroom the right way.
TIP 1: USE SELF-DEPRECATING HUMOR
Pointing out your own faults or problems in an amusing way has many benefits beyond just grabbing students’ attention. First, it is probably the safest form of humor, meaning the audience is less likely to be offended if it is clear that you are only making fun of yourself or your situation. Second, self-deprecating humor tends to show others that you are down-to-earth and relatable. This quality is especially helpful when teaching shy students because they may be less likely to ask questions or provide feedback in class until they feel comfortable with their instructor.
For example, you could share an embarrassing story about yourself with your students. In my classroom, I occasionally share a story about a time when I rushed home from work to change clothes and take my 1 year old daughter to a Gymboree class for toddlers. During the class, each parent sat cross-legged on the floor with our child sitting in our lap and we formed a giant circle around the instructor. The instructor gave instructions regarding how to move our children’s hands and feet to the beat of the music. Most parents who attended were young mothers, and I couldn’t help but notice they kept staring at me while we were sitting cross-legged in the circle. I thought to myself, “yep, I still got it!” At the mid-class break, I sat on a side bench next to my wife, and she whispered, “I really like your underwear.” When I looked down, I was HORRIFIED to discover the old pair of shorts that I was wearing had a huge hole in the crotch. OMG! These ladies weren’t checking me out. They were probably thinking what kind of a SICKO goes to toddlers’ class with a huge hole in the crotch of his pants! LOL This story never fails to make my students smile or laugh.
TIP 2: TELL JOKES & FUNNY STORIES
Occasionally telling silly jokes and amusing stories is another effective way to grab your students’ attention and make them feel comfortable in your class. One of my all-time favorite teachers was Mr. Floyd W. Scott because he often went out of his way to tell his high school students ridiculous jokes and make us laugh. He was a bit eccentric. Sometimes he would belch loudly in class and then proclaiming, “that wasn’t bad manners, just good beer!” He also told risqué jokes like the following which was first made famous by George Bernard Shaw:
A guy asks a woman, “Would you sleep with me for a million dollars?” She replies, “Yes, of course. A million dollars would change my whole life!” So he asks, “would you sleep with me for one dollar?” She gasps. “No way. What kind of woman do you think I am?” He responds, “Madam, we have already established what you are. We are merely haggling over the price.”
In another example, I occasionally break the monotony of my 3-hour night class by telling a funny or embarrassing story like the following. Once I attended a crowded church on a Sunday morning when a young mother and her six year old son came in late and sat down in the pew immediately in front of me. I noticed the child was holding a Buzz Lightyear action figure from the then-popular Toy Story movies. I was worried that the toy would make loud noises whenever the child played with it. But after ten minutes or so, I concluded that the toy must be turned off or perhaps the mom was wise enough to remove the batteries. In the middle of the sermon, the priest briefly paused between sentences, and we suddenly heard the booming voice of Tim Allen say, “To infinity and beyoooooond!” The entire congregation burst into laughter and turned toward me to look for the culprit. Much to my chagrin, the mother and her disruptive son immediately crouched down in their pew, and I felt the heavy gaze of everyone’s stair. As you can image, my face turned three shades of red!
TIP 3: USE CRAZY EXAMPLES
Another great tip for grabbing the attention of your students and helping them retain information is to use crazy examples to illustrate your points. The more outlandish the example, the more effective it is. Below is one example that I use in my business law class.
When discussing the common law concepts of comparative negligence and contributory negligence (which involves considering the fault of both parties to allocate damages to the winning party), I often use a crazy example involving one of my students (preferably a big, burly male student) walking his beloved pet poodle “Fifi” across a busy six-lane highway during rush hour (obviously a negligent thing to do). This example also involves another student from class who is driving 110 mph in a red convertible Ferrari (complete with a dead hooker in the truck) on the same highway while snorting an eight ball of coke and texting on his phone (also a negligent act). Finally, I explain that Fifi accidentally gets run over by the Ferrari, and then I ask one of my students to analyze how comparative negligence and contributory negligence would apply to this bizarre scenario. Instead of using this over-the-top story involving two of my students, could I have used a simple, more realistic story involving two fictitious people acting negligently in some common way? Sure, but my students are much more likely to recall the amusing example come test time, especially if it involves a few students from class.
TIP 4: RANDOMLY SING OR DANCE
Except for theater and dance classes, most college instructors don’t usually sing or dance during class. Such a rarity would no doubt be memorable and entertaing, especially if you’re a poor singer or dancer. That’s EXACTLY why you should spontaneously break out into song or dance for your class! This tip will definitely break the monotony of class and grab your students’ attention.
For example, when I discuss the Statute of Frauds, I usually ask my class for the five types of contracts subject to this common law rule. My students are usually able to list at least a few of them with the aid of their textbook. If they need help finishing the list, I usually give them a little clue by belting out the opening lines from “Gold Digger,” the 2005 hit song by Kanye West and Jamie Foxx. The irony is that I am a horrible, horrible singer. My singing talent is best described as somewhere between “Karaoke newbie” and “OMG, is someone dying?” In any case, I’m willing to make a complete fool of myself for a few moments because one of the lines from that old song refers to a marital pre-nup. Invariably, at least one student will recognize the song and figure out that the answer I’m looking for is “prenuptial agreement.”
Here’s another example. Whenever I call on a student in class for an answer and she doesn’t know the correct answer, I usually instruct the student to search for the answer in the textbook. To fill the 30 seconds or so that it takes the student to flip through the pages and find the answer, I occasionally break out a rendition of whatever song and dance routine happens to be popular at the time—recently, Silento’s “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae).” Of course, my obvious lack of talent as either a singer or dancer made my performance all the more enjoyable and memorable for my students.
TIP 5: SHOW FUNNY MOVIE CLIPS
Even if you don’t have a funny bone in your body, there’s no reason why you can’t use funny movie clips during class lectures. For example, if you’re teaching a lesson on criminal law or litigation, you could show the class a few relevant scenes from the 1992 classic My Cousin Vinny. If you’re teaching a lesson on sexual harassment in the workplace, a few clips from Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy could do the trick. For a lesson on identity theft, consider a few scenes from Identity Thief. Even if you don’t possess the comic genius of Will Ferrell or Melissa McCarthy, you can borrow a little of their humor for the purpose of making your lectures more interesting and entertaining.
If you enjoyed the above tips, please check out my amusing and award-winning book about college teaching called Engaging College Students: A Fun and Edgy Guide for Professors. (please click this link to find out more!)