Humor: An Informal Formative Assessment

Is a smile formative assessment? Can comics really have an educational purpose?

The Common Core standard was HSS-ID.C.9: Distinguish between correlation and causation. The class: Algebra IB, 9th graders. Students had first hypothesized the difference, and then viewed a 10 minute video on correlation versus causation. This was followed by charts published by Business Week emphasizing the absurdity of correlation implying causation and then supported by a close (yes close and not cloze… apparently there is a difference in MD) reading activity with an online article. Even after this thorough investigation of correlation versus causation, did students really get it?

Formative assessment time
Normally in math, students are tested on their ability to perform some mathematical operation. In this case though, students needed to apply a concept as they often do in a social studies course. For a check on student comprehension of key ideas, a colleague tipped me off to using content-specific humor. (Thanks Surya!)

The moment of truth: Students are presented a comic only humorous to those who understand the underlying concept.

correlation comic

Correlation by xkcd. Image linked to site.

Hold your breath. Wait for it. Wait for it… Okay no belly laughs, but a smirk, another smile, a student who says “Oh!” While informal, in that moment it is clearly evident whether the students have a grasp of the content or not. Warning: Sometimes the truthful answer is “Not.”

Hint: Sometimes it helps if you read the comic aloud.

Humor is definitely not limited to comics. The audio recording of the Verizon Dollars versus Cents debacle acted as the informal formative assessment for dimensional analysis. “The Real Meaning of MPH” youtube clip, humor as a formative assessment for rate of change, really did cause belly laughs, yet one girl confessed, “I still don’t get it.” (Remediation was provided for the student).

Do you teach another subject? Humor as an informal formative assessment may be even more applicable in other subject areas. I am definitely jealous of the plethora of political cartoons available to the social studies department. Comics English is a website dedicated to using comics in the ELA classroom. I can only imagine what kind of comics could be found for the foreign language classroom.

What sources have you found useful for finding content-specific humor? If using humor as formative assessment, would you explain the humor to students who didn’t “get it” or wait to see if they see the humor after reteaching of the content?


AlgebraSimplifiedIconDawn is a secondary Algebra teacher in Maryland with a B.S. in Secondary Mathematics Education and a Masters in Information Science and Learning Technologies.

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4 thoughts on “Humor: An Informal Formative Assessment

  1. I love this idea! It makes the assessment more natural, more part of just every day. And incorporating comics in the classroom is always fun. I like to use the alot (from Hyperbole and a Half) in my English classes.

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