Communication Currents

Communicating Humor in the Classroom Helps Fulfill Students’ Basic Needs

February 1, 2015
Instructional Communication

Ask any student who attends a college or university, and he or she will tell you that not all professors are created equal. While some professors make learning fun and exciting, others seem to suck the life out of education. For better or worse, students are stuck with their instructors throughout the length of a class, and experiences with their instructors ultimately end up being reflected in their learning. For this reason, communication researchers spend significant time studying and articulating the types of behaviors instructors perform to determine what motivates students and what serves to irritate, distract, and demotivate them.  

As it pertains to beneficial instructional behaviors, scholars who study communication in the classroom have argued instructor humor is a positive method of enhancing students’ learning experiences. This is because humor has the ability to entertain students, alleviate anxiety related to the learning environment, create a positive academic climate, and increase student motivation. Perhaps most important, instructor humor also has been linked to student learning.

That said, not all humor is beneficial in academic settings. In fact, some humor may be considered detrimental. For instance, self-deprecating comments have been found to associate negatively with students’ positive experiences in class. Additionally, humor that is unrelated to classroom content or inappropriate (e.g., disparaging or offensive) has been shown to be unrelated to student learning. Thus, although most research points to the notion that humor is generally beneficial in the classroom, some humor is not.

To date, researchers have not completely articulated the method through which humor affects student learning. Early theoretical developments posited that instructor humor works to influence learning through its ability to increase the depth at which students process information. Specifically, early theorists postulated that humor may influence learning because it increases the attention students pay to a lecture and motivates them to think deeply about the lesson. While the argument may sound convincing, researchers outside of instructional contexts have discovered that humor and the positive affect it creates can actually be detrimental to deep informational processing.

Our study sought to test the theory that humor leads to deep student information processing. We pitted this explanation against another claiming students learn more from humorous teachers because these instructors create a positive atmosphere that fulfills students’ basic needs and helps them become actively engaged in the learning process. Essentially, we argued that humorous teachers create a positive climate that fosters students’ beliefs in themselves and positive relationships with their instructors. Both of these notions are tied to student learning. Moreover, by creating a positive learning environment, we argued, instructors may help students enjoy their classes more and perceive them to reflect experiences in which they choose to participate as opposed to experiences in which they are forced to engage. If this is the case, we argued, students may be more intrinsically motivated to learn and may be more likely to engage in behaviors that relate to learning (such as coming to class).

Based on our results, we were able to conclude that the reason humor affects students’ reports of learning is not the result of increased cognitive effort or deep processing, as previous researchers had claimed. Instead, as we asserted above, we found humor’s impact on learning largely stems from the positive climate it builds and, subsequently, the needs it fulfills for students. By fulfilling students’ needs, we argued, instructors can promote genuine enthusiasm for learning, which leads to a variety of academic behaviors that increase students’ chances for being successful in their courses.

In summary, there are a variety of things teachers can do to help students learn, and using humor is one of them. Instructors who use humor have the ability to create learning environments that students enjoy and want to be a part of. By helping students enjoy their academic experiences, instructors may motivate students to engage in behaviors that ultimately lead to learning.

If you travel to any college or university and ask students what they value in an instructor, you may be surprised that many will stress the importance of humor. This is not because students come to college simply to have a good time. Instead, it may be because educational encounters can be fun and engaging, and students who experience them in this way tend to get more out of their learning experiences.

About the author (s)

San Bolkan

California State University, Long Beach

Associate Professor

Alan Goodboy

West Virginia University

Associate Professor