Humor in the Classroom: 40 Years of Research

You have to admire scholars willing to look at 40 years of research on any topic, and this particular review is useful to faculty interested in understanding the role of humor in education. It starts with definitions, functions, and theories of humor. It identifies a wide range of different types of humor. It reviews empirical findings, including the all-important question of whether using humor helps students learn. And finally, this 30-page review concludes with concrete advice and suggestions for future research. It’s one of those articles that belong in even modest instructional libraries—imagine having to track down the better-than-100 references in the bibliography.

Humor in educational settings serves a variety of positive functions beyond simply making people laugh. Humor builds group (as in class) cohesion. People respond more positively to each other when humor is present. It brings them together. Humor can facilitate cohesion by softening criticism. Research also establishes that humor helps individuals cope with stress. It relaxes them. But not all the functions of humor are positive. If humor is used divisively or to disparage others, it weakens group cohesion. Humor has negative impacts when it is used as a means of control. For example, given the power dynamic in the classroom, it is highly inappropriate for instructors to target students by making fun of their ignorance or beliefs.

There are many different types of humor that have been identified and explored in research. Among those listed in a comprehensive table in the article are humor related to class material, funny stories (hopefully related to the content), humorous comments, self-disparaging humor, unplanned humor (spontaneous, unintentional), jokes, riddles, puns, funny props, and visual illustrations. Humor related to course material, funny stories, and humorous comments are almost always appropriate. Other kinds of humor are appropriate depending on the context. And some kinds of humor are never appropriate, such humor that manipulates, denigrates, ridicules, or mocks others and offensive humor that is racially or sexually based.

Research has documented that the use of humor can benefit instructors in a couple of important ways. For example, the review lists five studies reporting positive connections between the use of humor and higher student evaluations. Conversely, overuse of humor and sarcasm has been related to lower evaluations. Nine studies document a positive relationship between the use of humor and an instructor’s credibility. The opposite has also been verified. Using too much humor, negative and aggressive humor, and humor disparaging to students damages credibility.

Believe it or not, there has been considerable research (11 studies referenced in this review) on the effect of including some humorous material on exams. Does the presence of humorous material improve exam scores? Very little evidence supports positive effects from humorous material. Humorous material does not have a negative impact on scores; in most of the studies, it had no measurable impact.

But the most important question is whether using humor promotes student learning, and here the research results are quite mixed. The article highlights findings on both sides, and its authors conclude, “The conflicting findings regarding the effects of humorous communication on information acquisition and recall make it difficult to form unequivocal conclusions regarding the relationship between humor and learning.” (p. 132) They identify some problems with the research and the difficulty of finding appropriate measures that link humor and learning. And finally, they use examples to illustrate the very disparate methods that have been used in studies addressing the humor-learning question.

As for the advice offered educators based on the review, the researchers begin by suggesting that teachers use humor that fits comfortably with who they are and how they teach. They point out that humor is not a necessary ingredient of effective instruction and that few things are worse than people trying to be funny when they aren’t. They suggest if an instructor doesn’t use humor but would like to accrue its benefits in class, the instructor should use the humor of others—by sharing cartoons, comics, or video clips.

Second, they reiterate the findings that humor is related to positive perceptions of the instructor and the learning environment and advise again against the use of humor that is negative or hostile. “Teachers should utilize humor that laughs with students rather than at them.” (p. 136)

Finally, if the goal is to use humor to increase learning and retention of course material, then use the humor to illustrate a concept just taught. This way, the humor helps students remember the material, and material can’t be learned unless it is remembered. And one thing about humor and learning is well-supported by the research: Humor positively affects levels of attention and interest. It’s a way to keep students engaged and involved with the course material. So if the concept is an important one, consider incorporating some humor.

Reference: Banas, J. A., Dunbar, N., Rodriguez, D., and Liu, S. (2011). A review of humor in education settings: Four decades of research. Communication Education, 60 (1), 115-144.

Excerpted from Humor in the Classroom: 40 Years of Research, The Teaching Professor, 25.10 (2011): 3.