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The Student-Centric Instructor

By: Melissa Mork, Ph.D., Professor & Chair, Psychology - University of Northwestern

There are three ways you can spot a college professor:

  1. She's weighted down with textbooks from 1981

  2. She's still using an overhead projector

  3. She can put iGens to sleep in 30 seconds or less.

Sadly, the reputation of college professors is that we're out of touch and don’t really care that we aren’t connecting with our students. As a student-centric instructor, however, I actively seek out ways to connect with my students, and one of the best ways I know to do this is through humor.

There are a number of reasons why I intentionally use humor in the college classroom. Humor is a way of letting the students get to know me and trust me. If I’m self-deprecating and approachable, they come to see me as human. When students laugh together, their laughter increases their connection to me, to one another, and to the content.

At the beginning of each semester, I immediately set the tone of the classroom with content-driven humor. In the first five minutes of our first class together, I’ve shown them that 1) this is a relaxed environment, 2) I’m not taking this all too seriously, yet 3) I’m not being frivolous or gratuitous because course content is still being addressed.

Do we ever get to the syllabus? Oh, sure. Later. But it’s not as high a priority as setting a non-threatening tone for the course. By playing funny content-related videos, I have set both students’ first impressions of me and my expectations for the course. They know we’ll have fun here, and I’ve assured them that they will learn something, even when we're laughing.

As they learn who I am as their professor, they begin to feel a connection with me. Comedy is a point of common ground, when we take a shared experience and bring out the humor of it. Many of the stories I tell in class are personal, transparent, and (hopefully) funny. As they laugh at my mistakes as a parent, as a professor, and as a citizen of this world, they see that I’m not the “sage on the stage” but rather just another person trying to make it through the day. They develop affinity, loyalty, even affection for this crazy lady who shows her humanness through stories.

For example, they’ll discover that I accidentally ended a phone conversation with my boss by saying “okay, love you,” or that I accrued library fines in the triple digits, or that I accidentally locked my son in the car when he was a baby. They know I make mistakes, I can laugh at myself, take ownership of my faults, and I can offer a sincere apology with grace and humor.

As the students see me as human, they learn they are allowed to be human, as well. “If this lady up front can make mistakes and laugh about them, I can screw up on a quiz and she will understand.” “I can struggle and she’ll get it.” I’ve just given them permission to be flawed, to take risks, to even make public mistakes in the classroom.

What a gift this can be for a student who comes in believing that life (and academia) demands perfection.

Within the classroom, our laughter creates social connection. The students signal to each other that this is a safe place to let their guard down, particularly when I am their mutually-shared target. If I can get them to tease me, they build connection as an “in-group” and I am the odd one out. I signal to the students that I can tolerate that position so they can all be on the same team. My support of their humor still conveys the message that I am credible and in control, but it also serves as an equalizer when they are able to gently tease me.

Beyond setting a tone and building relationships, though, humor in the classroom aids learning. During a lesson, I will use a humorous application of a point, and in doing so I have just caught, increased, and held the student’s attention. If they are paying attention, they are learning the material. Humor can enhance their problem solving ability, their creativity, and expand student comprehension of challenging material.

Humor also enhances motivation. The fun environment of the classroom draws students to return to class each day. Absenteeism is not usually a problem in classes where humor is intentionally included. And it’s not just students. I have lost count of how many guests I’ve had: boyfriends, girlfriends, roommates, friends, spouses, siblings or parents of students who have asked to “sit in” on a class period because they’ve heard about the fun we have. After class they tell me (with a note of surprise) how much they “actually learned!”

As a student-centric professor, my priority is connecting with my students, creating connections with one another in a cohesive classroom, and connecting them to the material. I want to give them permission to be human and the motivation to learn. The best way I have found to do this is through content-related, well-timed humor.

About the Author:

Dr. Melissa Baartman Mork is Professor and Chair of the Department of Psychology at University of Northwestern, St. Paul. Her graduate studies were in clinical and forensic psychology, with a master’s thesis on clinical bereavement and a doctoral dissertation on criminogenic thinking in repeat offenders.

After she realized none of these topics was a barrel of laughs, she changed her research interest to studying the therapeutic benefits of humor. As a result, in 2016 she became a Certified Humor Professional (CHP) through the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor


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Oct 03, 2022

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