Adding Humor to Your Lessons is No Laughing Matter

Try these seven ways to inject laughs into your curriculum, while staying on track academically.

By Jen Lilienstein

girl laughing

Though many people, including my husband, think of me as a straight-laced, serious person, one of my most memorable lessons from my middle school years was putting together a short comedy bit about a current event. In it, I played a reporter trying to get Qadafi spelled right for the segment title card. At the time, the various news stations were all spelling his name differently and, being the spelling geek that I am, I found that incredibly amusing. It was memorable enough that when he re-emerged in the headlines a few years back, I recollected my whole “bit” from my pre-teen years more vividly than anything that had happened the previous week.

While surprising to me, this would not have surprised Mary Kay Morrison whose brain scan research found that, “humor actually lights up more of the brain than many other functions in a classroom…humor maximizes learning and strengthens memories.” Humor has been a hot topic amongst education theorists for a long time. In fact, there’s been enough research conducted with respect to humor and learning that in 2011, Banas, Dunbar, Rodriguez, and Liu were able to review more than 100 studies over 40 years of research related to humor in the classroom. While some of the evidence was conflicting, perhaps due to study design, the research highlighted the following themes:

  • Humor builds group and class cohesion as long it’s not used divisively or to disparage others (Banas, Dunbar, Rodriguez, and Liu 2011, 117).
  • There are positive correlations between the use of humor and higher student evaluations (Banas, Dunbar, Rodriguez, and Liu 2011, 129).
  • When students take courses from teachers who use humor, they may become more motivated to do well in the class  (Banas, Dunbar, Rodriguez, and Liu 2011, 116).
  • Humor positively affects levels of attention and interest (Banas, Dunbar, Rodriguez, and Liu 2011, 137).
  • As with ALL aspects of education, contextualize your lesson based humor for maximum impact—don’t just tell an off-topic anecdote and check off the “add humor to my lesson plan” checkbox (Banas, Dunbar, Rodriguez, and Liu 2011, 123-124).

Four Ways to Weave Humor into Your School Day...Without Having to Crack a Single Joke

For those educators (like me) who are apprehensive about their comedic abilities, this doesn’t mean that you are solely responsible for bringing the funny! In fact, students and teachers may very well NOT see eye to eye when it comes to what’s funny or appropriate for the classroom (Neuliep, 1991). Here are four ways to weave humor into your school day without having to crack a single joke yourself:

  1. Current Events: Have students put their three favorite comedians on slips of paper. Then, put together groups of 3-4 students to create comedy bits that highlight the current event of their choice with the same kind of “voice” as their favorite comedians.
  2. Science: Create cartoons in the vein of the Oatmeal to capture their own personal highlights with respect to a certain subject. 
  3. English Literature: Teach learners what a meme is, then have them each create memes for their choice of book character or author.
  4. Spelling: Have pupils snap photos or print out misspellings that they run across on the Internet, or cut-out magazine or newspaper ads that change the meaning of what was intended, then post them on a classroom Pinterest-esque board. Alternative: have them change one word in the ad to a slightly different spelling to change the meaning of the ad. If you go this direction, you may want to cross out unacceptable words.

Three More Ideas to Help You Inject More Laughs into Your Lessons

  1. Cartoons for the Classroom: Humor Helps Hammer a Point Home (Grades 8-12): Pupils analyze a political cartoon about the use of ridicule in cartoons. Critical thinking exposes the issues addressed and the artist’s point of view.
  2. Puns and Punctuation (Grades 6-8): Middle school writers examine "Tom Swiftie" puns, paying special attention to dialogue punctuation. First in groups and then as individuals, they create their own "Tom Swiftie" puns for their writer's notebooks or for a classroom collection.
  3. Jokes, Quotations, and Cartoons in Economics (Grades 8-12): Who says economics can’t be funny? Learners apply their understanding of economic theory to analyzing economic jokes, quotes, and cartoons.


Banas, J. A., Dunbar, N., Rodriguez, D., and Liu, S. 2011. "A review of humor in education settings: Four decades of research." Communication Education, (60): 115-144.

The Banas, et. al. study drew on research from the following sources, which were used in this piece:

Bryant, J., Crane, J.S., Cominskey, P.W., & Zillmann, D. 1980. "Relationship between college teachers’ use of humor in the classroom and students’ evaluations of their teachers." Journal of Educational Psychology (72): 511-519.

Gorham, J. & Christophel, D.M. 1990. "The relationship of teachers’ use of humor in the classroom to immediacy and student learning." Communication Education (39): 46-62.

Neuliep, J.W. 1991. "An examination of the content of high school teachers’ humor in the classroom and the development of an inductively derived taxonomy of classroom humor." Communication Education, (40): 343-355.