November 18th, 2011

Humor in the Classroom: Reviewing the Research


The December issue of The Teaching Professor newsletter contains a piece highlighting a review of research article on humor. It’s so impressive I decided I’d mention of few of its features and findings in this post.

First off, this is one of those articles I’d recommend for your instructional resource library. If you’re a regular reader, you know I don’t make that recommendation unless an article is truly exceptional and this one is. The author team looked at 40 years of research on humor—the bibliography has more than 100 sources. The review is usefully formatted—it looks at definitions, functions and theories of humor. Research has identified and explored 22 different kinds of humor used in educational settings—truly something for everyone, even those not inclined to humor. These are neatly summed on a table in the article. Some humor like that related to course contents is almost always appropriate, other kinds like jokes, riddles or puns are appropriate depending on the context and a few kinds of humor such as that based on race or sex, or humor that denigrates others is never appropriate.

The article reviews research findings in an interesting and accessible format. It cites five studies documenting that the presence of humor has a positive affect on student ratings. Eleven studies verify that it enhances an instructor’s credibility. In both cases too much humor or offensive humor has the opposite effect on ratings and credibility. Other research documents that the presence of humor creates a more relaxed classroom environment. It helps relieve tension and stress, and makes students less anxious about making mistakes. More studies than you might expect looked at the impact of incorporating humor on exams—most found it had no impact on scores.

Of course, the most interesting question is whether humor promotes learning and here the findings are mixed. There are methodological problems with some of the studies and great diversity in how researchers have explored the learning-humor relationship. But there is a “substantial amount” of evidence that shows the effectiveness of humor at attracting and maintaining students’ attention. If students are not paying attention, then it’s a pretty sure bet they are not learning the content, at least not at that moment. Rather, than actually causing learning, it seems more likely that humor helps to create conditions that are conducive to learning.

Probably the best advice contained in the review involves deciding which kind of humor to use. The authors recommend that teachers use humor that fits comfortably with who they are and how they teach. In other words, a teacher should bring to the classroom the kind of humor used outside it, with the caveat that classroom humor always needs to be professionally appropriate. So, if a teacher loves puns, then that teacher should use puns. If a teacher regularly laughs at him or herself, then let that self-deprecating humor find expression in the classroom. If a teacher can tell funny stories, make the most of a spontaneous event or deliver one-liners, let that be the humor used in the classroom. It’s another case of building on those natural proclivities.

I don’t think this advice rules out the possibility of experimenting a bit now and then. But let the experiments be modest attempts at trying alternatives because as we’ve all seen it first hand— there’s nothing quite as deadly as someone trying to be funny and not succeeding.

Should every teacher use humor? These authors say that humor isn’t an essential feature of good teaching. They acknowledge that some people just aren’t very funny—humorless aptly describes several professors and administrators I’ve known. If you aren’t all that funny but would like to accrue the benefits of humor, consider using the humor of others. You can post a cartoon on a PowerPoint slide and not have to say a word about it.

Is there any humor in the review on humor? Nope—but then who’d want to risk being funny on such a serious topic! What do you think? Does humor have a place in your classroom? Please share your thoughts in the comment box below.

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