Humor in Teaching

We’ve recently added a lot of seriousness to the offices of teaching, from the too-high cost of a degree to the desire to produce specific results (jobs, right?) that are not really promise-able in any environment. But humor is an important tool to keep in the toolbox, for a number of reasons.

I was first alerted to this in a critique, a number of years ago, when a very perceptive student noted to the class that I used humor specifically when I was getting most serious and specific about something in the work discussed–follow the humor, he said, to find what I thought.  Now, I teach in a studio environment, in art, which is extremely discursive, seemingly “subjective”, and is essentially evaluative about student results that are, in essence, propositions about a problem or thesis. While there is much attendant theory and critical structure, essentially most teaching involves students delivering a product which is then discussed as to its efficacy (success or failure).  Even in class, when things are being rather publicly produced (calculus on stage), one works exposed.  This is, at the least, a stressful process. So clearly humor can help, given its traditional psychological role of defusing tension and leveling difference.  But humor often hurts, and this can be good and bad.

So a few ground rules I intuitively follow:

1. The best humorists work at the expense of themselves, not others.  A former graduate student compiled a video of all of Rodney Dangerfield’s entrances to Johnny Carson shows–it was heartbreaking.  Instantly, you wanted to be helping him, for whatever he wanted.

2. Humor is hard.  If one looks at the files of comics, one sees such a vast array of approaches and failures to get the point across that most of us look lazy.  They involve not just words but physical attitude.  They are dependent on context–if a particular group doesn’t get it, a new path will be tried.

3. Humor follows a specific thesis structure–a problem is set, and results are tried.  Interestingly they are all “failures”, because the dominant mode of humor is desire and failure.  This applies not just to the conveyance of a problem, but to the problem itself–the problem perhaps has no solution.

What results from a (virtuous)  humorous cycle is of great interest psychologically.  The lowering of structurally defined power enables subjects to try for power themselves.  The lightness of identifying difficulty invites approaches to its challenges. The identification with failure as the common result creates community rather than exclusion.

That humor creates a space in which to operate is not a particularly new idea.  Tonight, at a talk about Afghan poetry in the “Landlay” style, we essentially viewed the creation of a safe space for women through a very simple but wickedly humorous art-form, essentially a text-message in its brevity.  While we are perhaps all to aware broadly of the negative side of humor, as it is employed to deprecate others,  specifically focused humor specifically focuses its power in ways that, for the “powerless” would not exist.  Witness Swift, and it is not insignificant that the most powerful figures in Shakespeare are often fools; power that cannot lower itself is never really power. This is particularly true for teaching, which is one of the most asymmetric relationships possible, but one which doesn’t clearly enunciate its asymmetries–students are mostly powerless, so give them a shot.  And shoot back.


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47 Down. Effectiveness of crosswords as review vehicles (2 wds.)

crossword-coasterFor many years, I wrote a crossword puzzle for my students to use as a vehicle for reviewing what we had just covered (either at the end of each week or, less ambitiously, at the end of each chapter). I used commercial software that took my clues and answers and formatted them into the familiar grid and arranged the clues in the usual columnar display. The program also arranged the squares so as to create the maximum number of intersecting letters, which probably allowed students to spend less time on the puzzle without (I hoped) materially affecting their learning.

The result was a puzzle that looked great, and the students seemed to enjoy this outside-the-box approach to reviewing material.  It took very little time for me to write the clues and answers, maybe 30-40 minutes for 30-40 items. It was also flexible enough to allow me to include clues about things that were discussed in class but not covered (or not covered in the same depth) in the readings. Will Shortz’ day-job is secure, but the result looked pretty darned good.

For some classes, this might be a good review option. It’s great for vocabulary (e.g., “jurisdiction over things” (answer: inrem)), concept identification (“standard of appellate review of questions of law” (answer: denovo)), and even some black-letter rules (“number of defendants who can have the same citizenship as one or more plaintiffs in a federal suit based upon diversity” (answer: zero)).

A 2009 article in the on-line Journal of Effective Teaching by Davis et al. compared outcomes for two classes in a Sociology course. Each class used crossword puzzles to review for two tests and multiple-choice questions to review for two other tests. One class did better on tests for which the review was done by crossword, the other class did worse. The authors’ conclusion: “The differing results between the two classes used in this study suggest that further research on this topic needs to be done.” Clear as mud. (Answer to title of this blog: notknown.) The inconclusiveness of this study allows me to cling to my belief that the crossword puzzle works well for certain kinds of reviews, but it’s just a belief at this point.

Meanwhile, I’ve moved on to a review vehicle for all my classes that I think works better for the kinds of things I want law students to get some practice doing: making arguments by applying legal rules to fact patterns, which requires a knowledge of the rules, creativity in formulating arguments, judgment (to accept some arguments and reject others), and writing skill, all in a fifteen-minute exercise. (It’s also the format for my final exam, so students get multiple opportunities to practice this type of question before they encounter it for real.) The device is a multiple-choice question with short-essay explanation. More on that, perhaps, in a future blog.


Posted in Teaching Methods, Technology | 1 Comment

Beyond Mnemonics for Name-Learning Challenged Teachers

hello-my-name-isI have always thought that learning the names of my students creates a better classroom environment. The alternative — pointing a finger at a student I want to call on, or calling out the “the young man in the green sweater” — seems rude and crude.

Plus, learning students’ names is simply respectful. It acknowledges their dignity as individuals. It sends the message that you care enough about what you’re doing as a teacher to make the effort to learn their names. And, as Natalie Houston has observed at The Chronicle’s ProfHacker blog, it builds rapport, creates a sense of community, and facilitates classroom management tasks such as taking attendance and grading class participation.

Learning students’ names comes in handy outside the classroom, too, where “Good morning, young man in the green sweater” sounds demented and a simple “Good morning” sounds incomplete after you’ve been greeted by your name.  There’s just one problem.

I am terrible at names.

Actually, I am worse than terrible.  I am ridiculously awful with names. I’ve greeted someone with a handshake and exchange of our names and forgotten the other person’s name before letting go of their hand. It’s as if the name went into a dark cave in my brain, never to be seen or heard again. More likely, though, the name probably never got to my brain at all. Either way, it didn’t click, register, stick, or stay.

I do okay in seminars with up to twenty students. With a roster and photo array before the first class and a few minutes of conversation with each student during class, I am usually good to go for the rest of the semester.

In a large class — say my first-year Torts class with 93 students — it’s a lost cause.

But there’s help for the hapless, and where there’s help there’s hope. I like Natalie Houston’s short list of name-learning helpers. The University of Nebraska has a website where they describe twenty-three tips and tricks for learning students’ names. As they say, not all of them will be compatible with your personal style, but some of them may prove to be useful.

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Does sex matter?

r-CLASSROOM-HANDS-large570 From the Journal of Higher Education (Nov./Dec. 2013), here’s the abstract:

We conducted an observational study to examine the effect of student and professor gender on college classroom participation and faculty-student interactions. A main effect for professor gender emerged, with more voluntary responses in female-taught classes. As the percentage of males present increased, overall voluntary responses and professor praise decreased.

I am not so sure about their use of “gender” as a synonym for “sex,” but whatever. This article by Tatum et al. raises a number of interesting questions. Is there a difference in patterns of class participation for male and female professors in your discipline? Does the presence of more male students change this pattern? And if so, what can you do to alter the pattern? The study reports that “[f]emale professors were more likely to follow up on students’ comments, praise students’ verbal participation, and provide more corrections to students.” Should we male professors be learning something from these findings? If “[f]emale professors may have created an atmosphere in which students felt more comfortable participating because their responses were extrinsically reinforced more often by the instructor,” maybe male professors should be doing something differently.

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Simple Classroom Cues to Help With Student Motivation

Within the SMU CTE, we have been discussing a number of issues relating to motivating the students that we all have the privilege to teach. Although many of us assume that the subject matter itself should be interesting to and motivating for our students, the fact is that we can all benefit from considering how to motivate our students when the subject matter itself does not. While we recently presented a CTE workshop titled “Carrots and Sticks: Motivating Students to Learn”, I wanted to share some other considerations on this topic.

Sometimes it is helpful to look at how other universities approach this important consideration, as student motivation is perhaps a universal for those teaching in higher education. For example, the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University has provided some useful information on motivating students, looking at six categories and aspects: Intrinsic Motivation, Extrinsic Motivation, Effects of Motivation on Learning Styles, A Model of Intrinsic Motivation, Strategies for Motivating Students, and Showing Students the Appeal of a Subject. The last of the six, Showing Students the Appeal of a Subject struck me as interesting.

As Vanderbilt’s CT states, “When encouraging students to find (your) subject matter interesting, use cues to show students the appeal of the subject matter”. They then give examples of verbal cues that the instructor can provide to and for students.  They outline cues in eight areas: Novelty, Utility, Applicability, Anticipation, Surprise, Challenge, Feedback, and Closure. For example, in the area of Utility, a cue might be “This next topic is something that we’ll use again and again.  It contains valuable ideas that we’ll use throughout the later sections of the course.” I find this helpful, as it is an example of how simple but carefully worded comments can provide a spark to the student to help them take notice (and hopefully be motivated by) the course material at hand.

In summary, while some students will be motivated simply by the subject matter itself, we as instructors can also make use of targeted teaching strategies to help motivate our students as needed. If you are interested in reading more of what Vanderbilt has to share, visit their Center for Teaching website at

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They love me, they hate me?

HeartEach semester I dread and welcome the day I receive the email with the subject line ”Teaching Evaluations”.  In the email, I get access to two things, my quantitative scores and my open-ended student comments.

Like many colleagues, I love the comments – the good and the bad.  I welcome the sarcastic remarks about why the assignments have to be so complicated, the compliments regarding my choice of readings, and even the somewhat odd personal observations such as, “do you know you wear black pants every Thursday.”  I learn so much about what students believe to be fair and good about my course.  I take most of these comments to heart, even the odd observations. In general, I feel nothing but love from the students when I read these comments, even the critical ones.

On the other hand, I dread opening the quantitative scores that always accompany the comments.  As a quantitative researcher, I know how to make sense of the distributions and the possible random errors.  As a heavy user of survey research, I place a lot of value on scaled responses.  As a member of a large university faculty, I know that my relative overall ranking from these scores matter and that professional careers can hinge on good and bad teaching evaluations.  With all the possible limitations and consequences in mind, I also take these averages and individual scores selected by my students to heart.

To be honest, my quantitative scores are rarely that low, but they are far from excellent which is what I aspire to.  What I have come to accept is that only a small proportion of students will choose the highest rank on all questions asked.  For example, some might believe I manage class time well others disagree.  When colleagues question the utility of standardized teaching evaluations I often disagree.  In my experience, my students are as intentional in their response choices using these measures as they were in writing their comments.  If I am honest with myself, the majority of students are often right with respect to where they find me lacking and where they see my strengths.  So I now use both my comments and my standardized scores to improve my courses.

I know many of us are concerned with the heavy reliance on standardized evaluations and the lack of attention paid to the comments portion of teaching evaluations, the peer observations, and the critical assessment of syllabi.  I completely agree.  I know that we worry about students using these evaluations as a tool to exact revenge for their poor performance.  However, as standardized teaching evaluation questions have improved, I increasingly see value in the responses generated from these questions. Universities are increasingly paying attention to the questions asked and to the data received.  Over the last two years, Dedman College examined the content of questions, revised and added new ones, and finally found a way to link class characteristics to the data.  As a result, the standardized scores from my fall evaluations were some of the most helpful I have received while at SMU.

While changing standardized evaluations are certainly a step in the right direction, I would suggest that universities also find a way to use the open-ended comments as well.  All they need to accomplish this is software that analyzes qualitative data to identify patterns.  Using these software packages, we can quickly and reliably identify positive versus negative adjectives, identify consistent problems, generate super cool WORD CLOUDS to see what words dominate student comments.  In other words, there are ways to not rely so heavily on a single number or a rank when determining how good of a teacher someone is.

I would love to hear other ideas for how we might continue to improve how we personally use our teaching evaluations and how our institutions use these evaluations (both quantitative and qualitative) to evaluate our performance.

Posted in Teaching Evaluations | 4 Comments

Adjuncts Adrift?

SMU is boat-hull-dam_70945_990x742hosting “The Year of the Faculty,” but the Chronicle of Higher Education seems to be amid a year of Adjuncts. Many articles in the last several months have detailed the often poverty-stricken, prep-strapped life of some adjuncts. Clearly, not all adjuncts are alike. Some are indeed affluent leaders in their fields who teach to share their special knowledge, serve their professions, enhance their résumés, or enjoy the classroom experience. But sometimes, adjuncts are relegated to the dregs of Academia’s caste system.

Long-term adjunct work, part-time and full-time, has its drawbacks for faculty as well as students. At the 2014 AAC&U conference, I attended a session titled, “Addressing the Adverse Impact of Non-Tenure-Track Faculty Working Conditions on Student Learning: Practical Approaches and Resources for Facilitating Change.” (There’s an academic title for you.) A panel discussed the many challenges for adjuncts and the ways those hurdles may impact student learning. Overall, the session identified difficulties and called for more inclusion of adjuncts.

Granted, tenure is hard won and deserves respect. But adjuncts teach the same students, in the same classrooms, for the same tuition dollars as tenured professors. Our students deserve the best learning opportunity in all classes, regardless of who is standing in front of the room. And our instructors deserve respect, regardless of rank.

Fortunately, more people and institutions are recognizing the problem and calling for change. For example, recent articles in the Chronicle include: “Accreditation Standards Should Include Treatment of Adjuncts, Report Says,” and “Adjuncts Gain Traction With Congressional Attention.” USC has launched The Delphi Project on The Changing Faculty and Student Success.

Here at SMU, the CTE is developing a program to support part-time adjuncts: CAFÉ, a Community for Adjunct Faculty Excellence. If you would like to learn more, participate, comment, or collaborate, please contact me at In the meantime, please join me in speaking up for greater awareness at SMU.

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Anyone up for playing a game in the classroom?

GamificationWhat’s wrong (and right) with having some scholastic fun? What do students gain, both cognitively and affectively, from role-playing simulations? Do games and related activities stimulate student motivation to learn? Those are some the questions a small group of faculty members are thinking about this academic year under the auspices of the CTE Faculty Learning Community. The group, intrepidly led by Alice Kendrick (Advertising-Meadows) includes Ann Batenburg (Teaching & Learning-Simmons), Tony Cuevas (Instructional Design & Learning Technology-Simmons), Andy Greenwood (Music History- Meadows), and me (Psychology-Dedman).

We are learning that there are lots of good reasons to occasionally insert a game or “playful” activity in class. It breaks up the lectures, gets students’ competitive juices flowing, and as Dean Bowen would endorse, it is a great way to actively engage students. We’ve also learned that there is a literature out there about such topics as “gamification” (Kapp, 2012), defined as using game elements or design techniques to make learning more engaging and fun.

Classroom games are already being played on the hilltop. Maria Dixon (Communication Studies) is using the John Madden football game to teach organizational communication skills. Alice Kendrick has students go without wearing denim for several days (“deconsumption deprivation”) to learn how clothing affects social activities and personal choice. Ann Batenburg adapted the speed dating concept to help students prepare for tests. I’ve used a customized Jeopardy game for reviewing course material. One of my colleagues plays a song at the beginning of class. The first student who makes the connection between the song and the topic of the day gets a point of extra credit. These are just a few examples of what is going on in our classrooms.

As is evident, games and related activities can add life and some fun to the classroom experience. You will hear more from our group as we develop more knowledge and expertise in this area. But you can also help us. If you are using a game or game-like activity in your class, please send me an email about it ( And don’t forget to have some fun in class!

Posted in Active Learning, CTE, Learning Communities, Teaching Methods | Tagged , | 1 Comment

7 Characteristics of Good Learners

thinkingOver at the Teaching Professor blog, Maryellen Weimer has come up with a list of seven characteristics of good learners.  We might all salivate at the idea of students like this:

  1. Good learners are curious
  2. Good learners pursue understanding diligently
  3. Good learners recognize that a lot of learning isn’t fun.
  4. Failure frightens good learners, but they know it’s beneficial.
  5. Good learners make knowledge their own.
  6. Good learners never run out of questions.
  7. Good learners share what they’ve learned.

Imagine a classroom full of the curious, persistent, generous risk-takers described here.  “But Beth,” I hear you saying, “that’s all very well, but we have to take our students the way they come.”

And that’s true, but we’re not helpless in the face of passive resistance.  We can adopt policies that require and reinforce diligence.  But more to the point, we can model this kind of learning for our students, demonstrating our own curiosity and the way in which our discipline asks questions.  We can share some of our own flubs, and create a classroom environment that provides the kind of support that encourages risk-taking and enables success.  We can show how the un-fun equips us to fly.

Most of us probably ended up in teaching because we love to learn.  Let’s remember to show our students how we got there.

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How do I ask students better questions?

While preparing for class I find that a lot of my time is spent composing my delivery, i.e., what is the content that I will present, how will I present it, how I will use the board, how I will use computer demonstrations, etc. These are all important to consider. However, I often find that my lectures or assignments may be weakened not by the whats and hows of my delivery but by the questions I ask — the whats and hows I pose to the students. The silent class, lack of engagement or incorrect answers are sometimes due to not giving as much thought to my questions as I do to my delivery.

The importance of asking the right questions is in itself a field of study. Inquiry-Based Learning is a well-evolved teaching system based on asking questions. The Foundation for Critical Thinking has a nice (and short) opinion piece with a somewhat call-to-arms tone emphasizing the importance of a well-considered question strategy in the classroom. One example can be found in this recent article, which asks how to pose questions with the goal of increasing participation and engagement: A “simple, effective approach” that this article suggests is to ask specific questions of specific students.

At the level of a specific question, how a question is asked can generate different answers and stimulate different thought processes. As described in the paper Asking More Effective Questions, questions in the classroom typically take one of two forms: convergent questions, where there is generally a specific answer, and divergent questions, whose answers are more open ended. Formulating effective divergent questions is recognized as more challenging for instructors. This theme is taken up by Nesbit and Cliff in the field of physiology and I note one of their conclusions: “Our findings indicate that, despite the fact that instructors of anatomy and physiology recognize the value of open-ended science questions, they have considerable difficulty in successfully creating them. Inexperience may contribute to the low rate of success in producing open-ended questions.” This gets down to perhaps the most detailed level of asking questions, i.e., how do we word them to best achieve our goal?

I often struggle with the open-ended question posed to the classroom. Is the silence that follows due to a mis-application of a teaching technique or strategy indicating lack of engagement, preparation or understanding? Or is it simply the fact that they don’t know what I want? Is my attempt to pose an open-ended question merely resulting in obfuscation? As another example, I recently posed an exam question (mathematics) that said, “Solve the following differential equations for x(t):”. Many students did not carry the solution as far as I intended. The fact that many did not and that many stopped at the same point indicated to me that I must be somewhat culpable for the misunderstanding. In this case, it appears that I should have said, “Solve the following differential equation and determine all unknown coefficients.” In this case I needed to be more specific. On the other hand, sometimes I don’t want to be more specific because understanding what I mean with a question is part of the examination.

I conclude not with any “how tos” or suggestions to try a nifty bit of technology. Instead, I want to emphasize that just like our delivery methods, which can be analyzed from theory down to their MOOC bits, we should give equal attention to our question techniques. And for those questions, we must consider not only the theoretical and strategic issues of engagement and convergent vs. divergent questions, but also simple wording. Sometime (maybe often), it’s less an issue of pedagogy, and simply a matter of careful, considered and effective composition.

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