EducationPop Quiz

Pop Quiz: Comedy

Let’s face it: lectures are really not an ideal way to transmit large amounts of information to a crowd of disinterested (or sleepy) students, but thanks to the way academia is currently structured, we frequently find ourselves tasked with doing precisely that. Assuming that keeping students more interested in the lecture than in watching YouTube videos on their phones is something you care about (which, unfortunately, seems not to be a universal value among lecturers), you have to find ways to keep the material interesting.

Granted, this is easier to do in some disciplines than in others. Or at least, I suspect that professors teaching Intro to Human Sexuality (or whatever) find it less of a challenge to keep students’ rapt attention than professors tasked with the 8am section of Watching Paint Dry 101. But even teaching something as theoretically agreeable and entertaining as music, it’s sometimes a bit of a challenge to keep everyone’s attention focused on the important details.

To combat the creeping sense of boredom that almost inevitably accompanies listening to a single person talk for ninety minutes, perhaps the most important tool in my arsenal is comedy. I try to slip in jokes whenever I can, both to keep students listening and to hopefully cause whatever it is I’m making a joke about to stick a little more firmly in their brains. After all, we’re always more likely to remember something we thought was funny, right?

I also think humour is an important tool to help students relax in otherwise tense situations, especially during exams. I always try to include at least one funny thing on every test I write–particularly in essay questions–because it serves both to break the oppressively over-serious mood that often hangs over exam rooms, and because it hopefully serves to remind the students that I am on their side. After all, despite all the official seals and warnings and protocols and seating diagrams and imposing invigilators looming overhead, when all is said and done exams are really nothing more than bizarre little artificial constructs that mean basically nothing in Real Life. If a little wink toward the absurdity of the situation can remind them of that, students are a whole lot less likely to experience the dreaded Exam Anxiety that can be so detrimental to their performance.

I like to think that my students appreciate my efforts to be funny, and indeed many of them do mention it in their end-of-term evaluations–some even in a positive light!–but I suppose it’s impossible to completely banish the thought that I’m just indulging in a bit of vanity before a captive audience who feel obliged to humour me. I certainly can’t say I don’t get a little kick out of making a room of three hundred people laugh.

So today’s question is: does humour make up an important part of your teaching arsenal? What kind of jokes do you use in class?

P.S. Speaking of comedy, I am currently obsessed with Simon Amstell. Go watch his standup (or the brilliant BBC series “Grandma’s House”) if you want to know what the inside of my head sounds like. Or maybe don’t >.>

The Pop Quiz is a question posed to you, the Scholars of Doubt. Look for it to appear Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoons (ET).

Featured image: Carlos Delgado

Previous post

Required Readings: Bill Nye won the debate against Ken Ham, or did he? Adjuncts' working conditions improve - Required Readings

Next post

More on creationism, all about DonorsChoose, Louisiana lawsuit, student-centered teaching, and atheist Hokies: Required Readings



Dan holds a PhD in Music History from a major Canadian university and is now pursuing a M.Ed in Higher Education at another one, because he likes to collect very expensive paper. He performs stand-up comedy at venues all over Toronto when he's not busy playing JRPGs with his cat, Roy. You can follow him at @incontrariomotu, but he isn't going anywhere. You can also send him a tip on PayPal ( if you like his work!


  1. February 10, 2014 at 5:30 pm —

    I use humor all the time in my lectures and believe it or not the humor is mostly for me. I want to have fun when I teach. If I have fun then so do the students. So every now and again there is a silly pun or crazy story just to snap everyone out of their lecture comas.

  2. February 11, 2014 at 7:28 pm —

    I often use humor in my class to make points. Today for instance I made the analogy that dimensional analysis, if you didn’t understand it, would haunt you like a bad taco, at least in their science classes. Students laughed and the joke hopefully will remind them to get help early rather then later. I think humor is a way to punctuate memory. It can therefore be use to say “Look here, this is important.”

Leave a reply