Some sporadic insights into academia.
Science is Fascinating.
Scientists are slightly peculiar.
Here are the views of one of them.

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

No Laughing Matter: Use of humour in lectures

We were asked to come up with the best and worst examples of lecturing, either our own or those we’ve attended. Clearly my lectures are textbook examples of tertiary content delivery and probably deserve prizes (worth a try). So I thought back to when I was the recipient of lectures (a long time ago). But since I went to a research focussed university in the mid 90’s where teaching was at best seen as a chore, the quality was fairly universally m’eh. There was, however, one standout lecturer who I still remember, and not because of the content, something to do with action potentials in nerve cells (holy moly I remembered something), but because of his delivery style. Each lecture had a carefully crafted hilarious diversion (normally about walking in the Alps). This in turn got me thinking about using humour in lectures, which I try, and sometimes succeed, to do. Here are some tips:
1.       Simple is best. You don’t need to be Jonathan Swift to get a laugh out of 200 bored undergrads. To be honest, most of the jokes I use work as well with primary school audiences as they do with postgraduates (particularly my carefully curated library of pictures of snot). My most successful joke uses the power of slide animation to transform “B for boring cells” into “B for brilliant cells”, this even gets applause! But beware, jokes, if they work, disrupt the flow and it can take a couple of minutes to settle the room afterwards.
2.       Context is important. Students are not necessarily expecting humour and so may not process it as such. When, in a fit of pique, I told one cohort that their dissertations needed to be handwritten and have the first letter illustrated by monks, the course organiser had a busy afternoon reassuring them that this wasn’t the case.
3.       Be culturally aware. Most jokes work because of some common ground, knowledge or experience; which the students may not have in common with you. Age in particular is a big barrier. I started working at Imperial before most of the current students were born, so my references to pop culture often draw blank looks. I once told a PhD student that “I love it when a plan comes together” and they looked confused, apparently unaware of the wisdom of Colonel John “Hannibal” Smith.
4.       Visual jokes work, but can take time. I love cartoons and have tried to use them from a range of sources (Piled higher and deeper, sketching science and @redpenblackpen all being favourites). But cartoons take time to read - don’t just flash them up and expect instant gratification. Memes work better: since they come with a preloaded meaning, they tick the shared common ground box. They can even be educational – if Boromir is saying it, it must be true.
5.       Align with teaching. One does not simply throw in a joke and expect it to work: you need to link the joke to the content. Humour can be memorable, but it can divert memory away from what you are trying to teach. This is why 20 years later I can remember my physiology lecturer but not my physiology lectures. I managed perfect joke-content alignment once, by tenuously linking UKIP, Brexit and the EU to T cell immunology. 3 years later, the students came up and said they remembered my lecture from the first year – both the joke and the concept.
On the whole, humour is a useful tool, but there needs to be a thread, however unlikely between the learning objectives and the laughter.

This article first appeared in Times Higher Education

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