Using Humor in Online Teaching

Humor is a strategy that takes some of the sting out of learning new things. Our brains relax once we’ve had a few yucks. I happen to think that proper grammar is unfairly described as boring. My time as a hiring manager let me see firsthand that grammar errors can keep your resume from moving forward, and typos in an email make a person appear inept and unprofessional. Grammar is an essential professional skill, and most of us learn it in 6th grade and never think about punctuation again. Tricking adults into relaxing and internalizing language laws is my secret sauce in the online classroom.

Laughter sparks the release of oxytocin, a hormone that facilitates social bonding, increases trust, and quickens self-disclosure. Laughter also releases dopamine, which aids in memory and information processing (Stein, 2016). Medina (2017) noted in his book Brain Rules that “the brain doesn’t pay attention to boring things.” The brain delights in novelty and clings to ideas wallpapered with laughter.

I have found (through tremendous trial and error) that you can create an online classroom that both informs and delights. As a writing teacher, discussion boards are my blank canvas, yearning to be filled with instructional delights. And I would argue that the use of humor helps adult students relax into learning in a way that nothing else can.

A good career counselor could have warned me away from being a writing teacher had Catholic schools offered such an option. Once launched into English instruction, imagine my heartbreak to find that both grammar and punctuation instruction are erroneously and regularly referred to as a snore fest. When asked about exciting and festive ways to spend an hour, the answer is almost never grammar lessons.

My biggest worry in leaving face-to-face instruction to teach online was that it would be difficult to use my Irish American gift of gab in the virtual classroom. In my former brick-and-mortar faculty position, I always had a lot of back-up quizzes in my briefcase to use when my witty family stories disguised as a grammar lesson failed me. My college-aged son says that I teach so that I can do stand up without getting heckled. Online teaching provides me with a captive audience. Since I began using humor in my instruction, my teaching has become a blend of knowledge transfer and guffaws.

To help students remember rules for punctuation use, I assign human characteristics to punctuation. The semicolon is my boyfriend (sorry ampersand, it’s over). The semicolon is a complete flirt, spending its days winking at us! The truth is, the little wink infers connections without using words. Nothing is sexier than that! Hilarious ad hominem attacks can help people remember when they need a comma. Commas cordon off the nonessential elements in a sentence; commas are helping us by keeping distractions from clouding the main point. The material inside the commas cannot contain essential information. Commas are the word version of my sister’s ex husband, or as I liked to call him, the dependent clause.

Please try this at home! Literally, practice your humorous teaching techniques on your family and friends. It is important that you try out your jokes on others before you use them in the classroom in case you haven’t considered some element that could offend others. Humor can be professionally useful as well, a crucial part of building trust and “a key ingredient in creative thinking” according to Michael Kerr (author of Humor at Work). Laughing allows people to lower their guard. Using humor can make it easier for adults to relax into learning. The use of humor has been found not only to better capture the attention of students, but by doing so can also improve course retention (Miller, 2017).  Humor can make an online professor more approachable to learners.

If you aren’t regularly using humor in your online classroom, today is a great day to start!

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