Make ’em laugh: why university teaching needs humour

First international conference on how jokes can improve teaching in higher education was inspired by a lecturer’s drab college course

May 23, 2024
A fly with a human mouth, laughing
Source: Getty Images montage

Sitting in a painfully dull biochemistry class as an undergraduate, Alex Koon often imagined how he would have pepped up the lecture with a few jokes.

Twenty years later – with a PhD, a postdoc and several lectureships under his belt – the Hong Kong-based scientist is making good on his vow to bring laughter into the classroom wherever possible.

On 24 May, he is also co-hosting the first international symposium on humour pedagogy, with speakers from the US, Europe and Asia talking at the event about how to enhance university teaching with comedy.

“Those lectures were just terrible – the professor would usually photocopy a textbook, project the transparency to the front of the class and read it line by line. My soul would leave my body,” recalled Dr Koon, a senior lecturer in the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s School of Life Sciences, on his uninspiring lectures at a leading US university.

Although his research into neurological diseases using fruit flies might not exactly lend itself to comedy, Dr Koon said he was always keen to plant gags, wordplay or light-hearted anecdotes in his teaching.

Campus resource: How to use humour to boost student understanding and creativity

“It’s sometimes said the best humour is spontaneous – and maybe it is – but, as educators, we don’t need the best humour. We just need something that connects,” he said, adding: “There’s nothing wrong with planning jokes well ahead, which is what most comedians do.”

For instance, he will illustrate his microbiology class on gram staining – a process involving the dye safranin, which identifies bacteria – by making a link to the saffron used in Michelin-starred restaurants to flavour food. “That safranin-saffron pun isn’t a laugh-out-loud gag, but it’s enough to get students to remember it,” said Dr Koon, whose classes also compare amino acids to Disney characters. “When students can see these links, it makes them motivated to learn.”

Even a joke that fails to land can be a useful talking point, Dr Koon continued. “It doesn’t need to be the funniest joke – just something that is humorous and applicable to the teaching,” he said.

In the age of remote learning and recorded lectures, however, humour can be a risky thing, admitted Dr Koon. “Dark humour and even sarcasm might work for a stand-up comedian, but it can often offend students – you don’t really need to take those risks,” he said, adding that slapstick and toilet humour were also dicey territory.

“Analogies, puns and absurdity are generally the best way forward,” he added.

Having won a HK$1.6 million (£162,000) grant to examine how humour might improve university teaching in Hong Kong, it seems that Dr Koon’s brand of comedy is gaining more than laughs.

“I was surprised that jokes could get funding, but why not if it makes university teaching more effective?” he said.


Print headline: Funny stuff helps to lift a lecture

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