The Top 10 Ways To Use Humor as a Pedagogical Tool

Ronald Jay Cohen

Ronald Jay Cohen

Ronald Jay Cohen, PhD, ABPP
Gold Palms, Inc.

What would an APA presentation be without humor?  It would probably be like 99% of the meetings you see at any convention.  Here, I am not just going to discuss humor, I am going to demonstrate it. So, let’s get right to it…

Number 10: Present information in the form of a top ten list

As an example, consider that handout that you distribute to your students on the first day of class.  The handout lists your expectations, grading criteria, and so forth.  Perhaps you could re-work that material as a top ten list.  You might then label the handout: “The Top Ten Ways to Fail this Course.” Your handout could include cautions against activities like, “Phone a friend during finals” or “Have a more intelligent look-alike sit-in for important class discussions.”

Number 9: Humanize and anthropomorphize

Sometimes talking about a concept as a person makes that concept easier to understand, or at least more memorable.  For example, in Cohen and Swerdlik’s (2017) discussion of the concept of face validity, we reflect that this concept does not get much respect. In essence, face validity may be viewed as the “Rodney Dangerfield of psychometric variables.”  Rodney’s picture in a box in the textbook helps students “give a face” to face validity.

Number 8: Aggrandize as you “exemplorize”

Stated plainly, “lighten up” when it comes to the examples you use to illustrate certain points.  If you teach measurement or statistics, chances are that you will have occasion to illustrate something using a distribution of test scores.  Here’s an idea: Instead of referring to generic class data, enhance interest by labeling the data as being from something that is humorous and visually imaginative.  In Cohen and Swerdlik (2017), we used this technique by manipulating test scores gathered from students not from a generic class, but from test scores of aspiring impersonators enrolled in the Elvis Presley Home Study School.

Number 7: Use “Headlines” to Link Lecture Subject Matter to Trending Topics & Current Events

As the former host of the Tonight Show, Jay Leno, masterfully demonstrated, funny news headlines can be attention-getting, conversation-starters.  In class, they can be great discussion stimulators. As an example of a headline you may want to use in a class that covers (or touches on) cultural issues, consider the headline on page one of The New York Times on June 2nd, 2017: “Universities Celebrate Diversity with Separate Commencements.”

Number 6: Identify or create topic-relevant cartoons

Cartoons have long held a place as a pedagogical tool.  They’re seldom laugh-out-loud funny—more like clever or cute—but they’re best if they’re relevant.  For the measurement textbook, for example, I could not find the relevant cartoons I needed, so I created my own and had an artist render them.  You could do the same.  Here’s a sample cartoon from page 62 of the Cohen and Swerdlik (2017) measurement text.  It could be used to illustrate the fact that test development experts bring their own worldview to the tests they develop and opine on.

... the Ancients measured facial beauty by the millihelen, a unit equal to that necessary to launch one ship .... Copyright 2016 by Ronald Jay Cohen. All rights reserved.

… the Ancients measured facial beauty by the millihelen, a unit equal to that necessary to launch one ship …. Copyright 2016 by Ronald Jay Cohen. All rights reserved.

Number 5: Recognize humor in the obvious, and use it in thought-generating questions and narratives

            Sometimes, being funny is simply a matter of stating the obvious. In this context consider the following excerpt from Cohen and Swerdlik (2017): “A test designed to assess gross and fine motor skills is the Bruininks-Oseretsky Test of Motor Proficiency… the test’s box cover could be used as an informal screening device for reading ability by asking colleagues to pronounce the test’s name correctly” (p. 511).

Number 4: Present brief, humorous videos relevant to the topic under discussion

            Most every minute of every day there are media to be recorded that could be used to spark discussion in your class. Accordingly, have your DVR running and know how to edit videos for pedagogical use in class.

Number 3: Supplement lectures with fun facts about the material being presented

Consider in this context the discussion of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) in Cohen and Swerdlik (2017). It notes that Katharine Briggs and her daughter, Isabel—two women with no formal psychological training—are the authors of the MBTI. But how did the test come to be?  As it turned out, the stimulus for the development of the test was Isabel bringing home Clarence Myers as a marriage prospect. Katharine questioned whether Clarence Myers’ personality type was a good fit with the Briggs clan.  Consequently, the mother-daughter team devised a test to answer that momentous question. Apparently, Clarence Myers “passed the test” because Isabel Briggs became Isabel Myers.  As a consequence, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator was born … and the rest is history.

Number 2: Incorporate humor in achievement evaluations

When making up test questions, it probably doesn’t hurt—and it may even help—to include multiple-choice test items with humor (even if in the form of patently incorrect, alternative responses). Such items were incorporated into the instructors’ test item file packaged with the Cohen and Swerdlik (2017) measurement textbook.  Here’s a sample:

According to your textbook, which of the following is BEST completed blindfolded?

a) an online word-processing test

*b) the Seguin-Goddard Form Board

c) the Seashore Test of Musical Talent

d) getting dressed to attend the Grammy Awards

Number 1: Personalize your presentation with true stories  

Most people have funny stories to tell based on their own real-life experience.  When that story is relevant to the subject matter being taught, you might consider sharing it with the class.  For example, when I have occasion to talk about the use of humor in psychotherapy, I might talk about a patient I was seeing for severe depression in New York City.  She was an out-of-work opera singer who had taken the subway to my office.  She began her session by tearfully telling me that she had considered throwing herself in front of the train as it arrived in the station. I looked at her and said softly, “You can’t do that.”  She sobbed, “Why not?”

I replied, “You haven’t paid your bill.”

The woman then let out the most cathartic laugh.  She said she hadn’t laughed like that in months.


Instructors who employ humor as a pedagogical tool must firmly keep in mind that, (a) their role is that of teacher, not entertainer, (b) their mission is to educate, not amuse, and, (c) their tool is judicious humor—and not the humor of stand-up comics which may be inappropriate, profanity-laced, and derogatory to, or intolerant of, an individual or group.  While it is conceivable that psychologists could represent themselves to the public (outside of the classroom) as comedians, psychologists who do so navigate a slippery slope because, generally speaking, comedians tend to attempt to absolve themselves from social responsibility by claiming that they are “equal opportunity offenders.” However, being offensive (even in “equal opportunity” fashion) stands in stark contrast to the professional (and patently non-offensive) demeanor of the psychologist, not to mention the mission of the profession.


Cohen, R.J., & Swerdlik, M.E. (2017). Psychological testing and assessment: An introduction to tests and measurement (9th ed.).  New York: McGraw-Hill.

(Author Note: This article is an abbreviated and text-edited version of the multimedia presentation entitled “Humor as a Pedagogical Tool” presented at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association on August 3rd, 2017 in Washington, DC.  References to the 50+ video clips used in that presentation have been modified, condensed, or omitted altogether).

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