Exercising gentle humor strategically

An unenergetic, monotone delivery of instruction can easily stifle a student’s intellectual curiosity. The simple addition of humor, however, might keep students more engaged. It has even been shown to increase student learning. By cleverly sprinkling witticisms, amusing anecdotes, and self-deprecating quips throughout his lectures, Bob Kegan keeps the tone light in what can oftentimes be serious, tense subject matter. The result is a welcoming environment in which students feel comfortable and close to their professor.


Robert Kegan, William and Miriam Meehan Research Professor in Adult Learning and Professional Development

Student Group



Harvard Graduate School of Education


Adult Development

Group Size

~200 students

  • Lomax and Moosavi outline  how humor can be used to teach statistics,  arguing that its use can help minimize anxiety and develop conceptual understanding (2002)   
  • The use of humor in higher education was associated with higher final exam scores in a statistics and psychology course. One possible explanation for higher exam scores is that humor may give students a new perspective that can facilitate learning (Ziv, 1998).  
  • Humor is linked to content retention among undergraduate students (Garner, 2006)  
  • Temper heaviness with levity. Especially in classes based around tense concepts, mix in well-timed, appropriate humor to lighten the mood.
  • If you find students reluctant to jump into a discussion, a gentle wisecrack might encourage participation and reduce tension  
  • A relevant joke (e.g., a little-known fact or a short story) can redirect wandering attention spans while making course content more memorable