As much of the higher education experience has moved online in the throes of a global pandemic, there is much discourse about how to survive and thrive in this new—and possibly permanently changed—educational environment. Many instructors have endorsed (and even demanded) an increase in student surveillance to curtail cheating. Others have called for new, improved online learning management systems to streamline delivery and assessment. Meanwhile, faculty have argued that unrealistic production expectations have led to increasing rates of burnout for both students and instructors.
Where’s the fun in this hypervigilant, restrictive, and punitive culture? Does it have to be this way?
While issues such as organized delivery and meaningful assessment are important elements in teaching and learning, we suggest that what will carry us through the pandemic days, and indeed long thereafter, are positive classroom experiences. Such experiences should not be considered those that are simply free from tyranny, but those that are demonstrably enjoyable and, dare we say, fun. While suggesting a positive or fun environment is hardly notable in and of itself, what is notable is the remarkable dearth of academic literature about creating and fostering fun in the higher education classroom.
To remedy this unforgivable oversight, we propose Ludic Pedagogy as a teaching philosophy that embraces the importance of fun, play, playfulness, and humor—without sacrificing academic or intellectual rigor. This philosophy integrates positive aspects and helps faculty create a learning environment that is less stressful—and (gasp!) enjoyable—for student and instructor alike, while increasing engagement, motivation, and learning outcomes.
Fun is an intrinsic motivator: the feeling that drives us to play chess, go rock climbing, or dance. Traditionally, education has employed grades as an extrinsic motivator, such as when a student seeks praise, validation, or avoids punishment or shame. However, extrinsic rewards erode intrinsic motivation; a sense of self-satisfaction is lost when extrinsic motivation takes over.
It therefore makes more sense to rely on students’ sense of enjoyment to engage in classroom activities and course material. Similarly, faculty members are likely to be more motivated in their teaching tasks by fun than they are by their paychecks or occasional free donuts in the faculty lounge. Creating—and maintaining—a fun environment can only be seen as a win-win proposition.
The difficulty with fun is that it is inherently subjective. One cannot make others have fun, and one student’s idea of fun may be different from another’s. Instructors can simply create the conditions in which students are likely to have fun. And we argue that doing so is worth the effort.
What kinds of conditions contribute to fun in the higher education classroom—whether online or face-to-face?
First, play is an activity that is possibly the least dependent upon external motivations. That is, play is driven by fun. Therefore, if we create an environment in which play is not only allowed but encouraged, we have created a situation in which students engage in an activity driven—perhaps solely—by intrinsic motivation. As educators, we can employ this activity in the service of learning. For example, Mooney and Harkison (2018) have implemented games into teaching human resources management, Purinton and Burke (2019) incorporated fun into an accounting class, and Francis (2012) used fun to teach information literacy.
Next, both students and faculty can approach our new and changing learning environment with a playful disposition. Playfulness is the willingness of classroom participants to engage in the activities of play in a manner that is wilfully nonserious. Though “serious” academics may clutch their pearls at such a mindset, a wealth of research exists showing impacts of playfulness on individual learning (Proyer, 2011), creativity (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975) interpersonal interaction (Jarrett & Burnley, 2010), attention to quality (Glynn, 1991), and overall performance (Proyer & Ruch, 2011; Glynn & Webster, 1992, 1993).
Finally, humor plays a key role in the Ludic Pedagogy model. This element is attitudinal and utilizes Benjelloun’s (2009) definition of “any event that makes the classroom experience pleasant” (p. 313). The other aspects of Ludic Pedagogy—fun, play, and playfulness—hold no value if they are not experienced in a pleasant environment. Good humor, considered both as the mood or state of mind and the quality of being amusing, underpins the efficacy of all the other elements.
The “humorous” piece of humor is also closely connected with fun, and has a range of pedagogically desirable benefits, including moderation of the effects of stress (Sliter, Kale, & Yuan, 2014), reduction of anxiety (Benjelloun, 2009), and increase in self-esteem (Lei, Cohen, & Russler, 2010). Who doesn’t mind a few laughs, especially in an otherwise stressful environment plagued with hard work and assessment?
Implementing Ludic Pedagogy is, of course, relative to the content and context of each individual course, its materials, and learning objectives. However, there are four general suggestions that can be used in most higher education contexts:
- Be of good humor
A positive demeanor is more inviting to students, leading to a more pleasant environment, which in turn is more conducive to learning. The other aspect of humour—laughter based on appropriate humor—aids in students’ recall of material (Wanzer, Frymier, & Irwin, 2010). Including humourous illustrations, examples, problems, or stories, can be incorporated into most, if not all, instructional environments.
2. Play is not only gamification
We play because it is fun. Many educators have gamified their courses via technological tools, but low-tech puzzles, games, and even online surveys can also be categorized as play. Play begins with anticipation—as students begin to see the shapes of new ideas, they experience the tension and excitement of learning. The play itself is any tool that allows the student to engage with and experiment with new concepts.
3. Create and cultivate community
The whole of Ludic Pedagogy is predicated on the idea of social relations. Fun, play, and playfulness are social by nature. It is this social nature that positively impacts well-being. Providing opportunities for students to interact in a playful manner—for example, in small breakout discussion groups in person or online—enhances interpersonal connections and all the benefits associated with them. Even introverts can participate in online surveys or games, which require little or no verbal participation or visual appearance.
4. Model a ludic mindset
Faculty would be well-served to model a ludic mindset characterized by playfulness and good humour. A willingness to model positivity and enthusiasm toward course content encourages students to be more willing to immerse themselves in learning.
Students who learn within a ludic framework enjoy improved learning motivation, increased creativity, lower stress attributed to the classroom, and an overall more positive learning environment. Similarly, faculty members who adopt Ludic Pedagogy are not only showing their interest in improving students’ learning, but are also opening the door to the opportunity to enjoy their work in a way that all the free donuts in the world could not provide.
Dr. T. Keith Edmunds is a full-time faculty member at Assiniboine Community College in Brandon, MB, Canada. He may also often be found lecturing in the department of business administration at Brandon University.
Dr. Sharon Lauricella is Associate Professor of Communication and Digital Media Studies at Ontario Tech University, Oshawa, ON, Canada. She has been the recipient of the Ontario Tech Teaching Award (2009 and 2013), the Social Science and Humanities Teaching Award (2014 and 2019), and the Tim McTiernan Student Mentorship Award (2020).
Benjelloun, H. (2009). An empirical investigation of the use of humor in university classrooms. Education, Business and Society: Contemporary Middle Eastern Issues, 2(4), 312-322.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1975). Play and intrinsic rewards. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 15(3), 41-63.
Ehlers, U., & Kellermann, S. (2019). Future Skills: The Future of Learning and Higher Education – Results of the International Future Skills Delphi Survey. Baden Wurttemberg-Cooperative State University, Karlsruhe. Retrieved from https://www.learntechlib.org/p/208249/report_208249.pdf
Francis, M. (2012). Using fun to teach rigorous content. Communications in Information Literacy, 6(2), 151-159.
Glynn, M. A. (1991). Framing tasks: the effects of the work and play frames on task attitudes, behaviors and information recessing. Paper presented at the annual meeting of The Association for the Study of Play, Charleston, SC.
Glynn, M.A. & Webster, J. (1992). The adult playfulness scale: an initial assessment. Psychological Reports, 71, 83-103.
Glynn, M. A. & Webster, J. (1993). Refining the nomological net of the Adult Playfulness Scale: Personality, motivational, and attitudinal correlates for highly intelligent adults. Psychological Reports, 72(3), 1023-1026.
Jarrett, O. & Burnley, P. (2010). Lessons of the role of fun/playfulness from a geology undergraduate summer research program. Journal of Geoscience Education, 58(2), 110-120.
Lei, S., Cohen, J., & Russler, K. (2010). Humor on learning in the college classroom: evaluating benefits and drawbacks from instructors’ perspectives. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 37(4), 326-332.
Mooney, S. & Harkison, T. (2018). Assessment for learning in university settings: fun and games. Anatolia, 29(4), 507-517.
Proyer, R. (2011). Being playful and smart? The relations of adult playfulness with psychometric and self-estimated intelligence and academic performance. Learning and Individual Differences, 21, 463-467.
Proyer, R. & Ruch, W. (2011). The virtuousness of adult playfulness: the relation of playfulness with strengths of character. Psychology of Well-Being: Theory, Research and Practice, 1(4). http://www.psywb.com/content/1/1/4
Purinton, E. & Burke, M. (2019). Student engagement and fun: evidence from the field. Business Education Innovation Journal, 11(2), 133-140.
Sliter, M., Kale, A., & Yuan, Z. (2014). Is humor the best medicine? The buffering effect of coping humor on traumatic stressors in firefighters. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 35(2), 257-272.
Wanzer, M., Frymier, A., & Irwin, J. (2010). An explanation of the relationship between instructor humor and student learning: instruction humor processing theory. Communication Education, 59(1), 1-18.