DONNA DITTON: Leaving a lasting impression

Donna Ditton may not have the ambition to become a stand-up comic any time soon, but that doesn’t diminish her desire to bring humor to the masses, and more specifically, to her classroom.

Ditton’s objective in doing so isn’t meant to incite nonstop, sidesplitting laughter from her students—she’d prefer to leave that work to her comedic favorites, such as Robin Williams, Ellen Degeneres, and Jon Stewart. Instead, her strategy is to use humor as an instructional tool to enhance classroom learning.

Ditton, assistant professor of communication, has read extensively about the benefits of incorporating humor in the classroom. 

“Some of the research I’ve looked at says a successful professor uses humor seven times, on average, in a 50-minute lecture,” says Ditton, who teaches interpersonal communication, public speaking, and women’s studies courses at Ivy Tech Community College Northeast. “It’s not all about creating a ruckus,” she insists. “Humor is introduced to relieve tension sometimes and to help students get into a learning mode.”

Empirical research from the State University of New York at Plattsburgh validates her claims by confirming that a little classroom levity can decrease anxiety, lower defenses, foster a positive student–instructor relationship, defuse tensions, provoke imagination, trigger interest and the motivation to learn, and open the mind.

Educator and researcher Mary Kay Morrison advances this learning-through-humor instructional model with hard science.

In her 2008 book, Using Humor to Maximize Learning, Morrison evaluated brain scans that showed high levels of activity in multiple areas of the brain when humor was used in conversation and instruction. Her studies concluded that humor maximizes learning and strengthens memories.

As every teacher strives to be effective in the classroom and help students learn, Ditton views herself as an advocate for relevant and appropriate humor as a means to fuel this engagement. She routinely peppers her lectures with a mix of witty anecdotes, observations, and visual aids—along with educational content from YouTube and Technology, Entertainment, and Design (TED) Talk videos—to create inviting, participatory class cultures.

“My teaching philosophy is to engage and encourage students in ways that will inspire them to aspire to their highest potential,” Ditton says. “Learning should challenge students to reach beyond what they knew before and to hunger for what is yet to be experienced.”

Ditton has used her upbeat brand of influence in a number of capacities during her 19-year tenure at the college. Examples include service as both program and departmental chairs; exploring the feasibility for the modern-day Faculty Assembly; delivering a “Humor in the Classroom” presentation to faculty graduates of the statewide Ivy Tech Academy for Instructional Excellence; developing best practices for employee communication within the region; advising the student-driven Metaphysical Exploration Club; and coordinating open mic nights for students in conjunction with Student Life.

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