Preparing for Instruction 2: Creating a Positive Learning Environment

When I was doing my BA, statistics was an often dreaded program requirement for Social Science and Business majors. There were all sorts of rumours regarding how hard the material was, how this course brought down many students GPAs, and how it had a high failure rate. While math has never been a huge struggle for me, I was nervous as I had not used advanced mathematics in several years.

To my surprise, I did very well in my statistics course, as did many other students in this class. Not only did I receive a high mark, I enjoyed what I learned. I have found many ways to apply the skills learned in this course to business and life. I even from time to time read books relating to mathematics/statistics and the impact it has on social or political realms.

Why was my experience so different than the rumours surrounding this much dreaded program requirement? In a word, it was the professor and the learning environment she created. Using stories and humour, this professor added context and relevance to what is typically dry course material. When we were learning about “T tests” she explained how this was originally commissioned by Guinness so they would have a methodology to produce a consistently better beer. When we were discussing sampling error, she pointed to the ads run by the Conservative party poking fun at Jean Cretien’s disability, which was tested on a focus group but later lead to nation wide controversy. While the course work was challenging, as students we were engaged these fun facts were interesting and demonstrated the value of the material.

Humour can make a difference is the classroom. The following article outlines how humor can be used in the classroom:

http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/publications/observer/2005/december-05/engaging-students-with-humor.html

Similar to my own experiences with statistic courses, this article outlines how humour can be an effective tool to engage students with course material. One of the ways this works is to add levity to the seriousness of learning. Jokes and stories can also work as triggers to help students recall information later.

This article warns though that humour will not always enhance the classroom. Over relying on sarcasm for an example can give students the impression of negativity and turn students away rather than toward learning. Too much humour can also give students the impression that the teacher is trying too hard to be funny or does not take their learning serious. Finally, some jokes, particularly those dealing with controversial social or political issues, can be offensive to some students. These types of jokes can detract rather than enhance educational environment.

Humour and story telling when used appropriately can be valuable tools in the classroom. We have a playful environment where I work, so incorporating this will be fairly easy and well received. The key will be learning to balance this technique with learning objectives in a way that maximizes learning outcomes. As a facilitator, control will be needed to keep things on track.

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