How To Teach Online Using Humor: What Works

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When you teach online, you’re always looking for ways to make your job easier, and your students’ experiences more satisfying.


Humor is an online teaching tool that can help you achieve both of those goals.
But this tool is more powerful than it looks. It pays to think carefully about how you’ll use it…

Wield this tool effectively, and you can:

  • Establish instant rapport with your students
  • Create a warmer, more relaxed online teaching environment
  • Counter feelings of student isolation and anxiety, and
  • Lighten the mood at stressful times of the semester.

But when used at the wrong moment, humor can do some serious damage. It might:

  • Accidentally cause offense by crashing cultural or personal boundaries
  • Set up inappropriate student/teacher roles
  • Imply a lack of respect and
  • Negatively affect your credibility as a professional educator.

Clearly, there’s a right way and a wrong way to use humor when you teach online.

Here’s how to make the most of this powerful tool.


Online Teaching Scenarios That DO Work Well With Humor


1.  Breaking the ice 

Humor in online teaching
At the start of a new semester, a little humor in your welcome email can really help to show students you’re a living, breathing person who’s approachable and helpful.

This helps to set the tone for the coming semester, and sets up a warmer learning environment.


2.  Reassuring an anxious student

Many students who are new to online learning are overwhelmed.
They’re anxious and impatient.

Some gentle humor can help them smile, relax, and gain some perspective.


3.  Clearing up confusion

I often get emails from students who are overthinking assignment questions, or are completely stuck for ideas on what to write about. They’re bogged down in in detail and can’t see a way out.

When this happens, I might use a humorous example to let a little light in, and give them some perspective. This allows them to step back and see the big picture – and then they often see that things are not that complicated after all.


4.  Working with senior or long-term students

When you teach online, you’ll find that many of your students are learning part-time. That means you may teach them over several semesters.

During that time, you build up an ongoing working relationship, and so get to know them a little better.

After a while, you can tell which students will respond well to a more informal humorous approach.


5.  When receiving positive feedback

At the end of the course, when you get emails from happy students, a little strategic humor in your ‘thank you’ message can reinforce the warmth of the online teaching/learning relationship, and set up a good foundation for the future.


Online Teaching Scenarios That DON’T Work Well With Humor


1.  Discussing grades 

Being funny when you teach online
Student results are a serious topic – whether they’re good or bad.

A high grade will be the result of hard work, and should be sincerely acknowledged rather than joked about.

And a low grade will involve a failing result or a resubmission – neither of which are at all funny.


2.  Saying “no”

When refusing a request for an extension or unwarranted special consideration, your tone must be completely professional.

You want your word to be final, and so there’s no room for humor here.


3.  When giving feedback

Students are at their most vulnerable when submitting work – whether it’s for final assessment, or simply comments on a draft.

Humor is dangerous here: never make your students feel you’re laughing at them.


4.  With a formal, very busy group

Humor is just another form of communication, so it helps to remember the golden rule of good communication: know your audience. If you have a very busy, rather humorless group of professionals, humor will be seen as an irritating waste of their limited time.

Don’t risk it.


5.  When you need to protect your credibility

Teaching online often involves demonstrating that you’re a consummate professional.

Never use humor when your credibility is being questioned or challenged. You’re a professional educator – not a comedian.


As you can see, humor must be used strategically when teaching online.


But by avoiding the potential pitfalls and using humor appropriately, you can create happier, more engaged online students who enjoy learning from a real person who sometimes makes them smile as part of the process.

[This article first appeared on eLearning Industry.]

Image credits: VIPDesignUSA @

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