Communication Currents

Should Teachers Be Funny?

February 1, 2011
Instructional Communication

Humor is a universal communication phenomenon, and people tend to seek out others who make them laugh. However, the classroom is not typically associated with laughter or humorous interaction. Education has traditionally been thought of as a serious undertaking. However, scholars are increasingly recommending that teachers incorporate humor into their classrooms. But what do we really know about how teacher humor affects the education process? In order to answer this question, we reviewed over 40 years of research on humor and education, consisting mostly of survey research but also including studies conducted in laboratory and real-world settings as well.

Our review revealed that instructor humor is a common communication behavior (about four instances an hour in college classes). Importantly, not all humor serves the same purpose or creates similar outcomes. Indeed, one of the most important factors in whether instructor humor helps or hurts the education process is whether students feel the humor is appropriate. One way to see how this works is to examine the clearest findings regarding instructor humor: the classroom environment. When instructors use positive and appropriate humor, students report feeling the classroom is a more interesting and relaxed environment, and they report more motivation to learn and more enjoyment of the course. Conversely, when instructors use negative or aggressive humor aimed at students, a more anxious and uncomfortable learning environment, increased student distraction, and less enjoyment of class are reported by students.

Although the research examining the effects of instructor humor on learning is more mixed than the findings regarding classroom environment, there is substantial evidence that humor can improve recall and aid learning. Scholars have identified a communication-based personality trait called humor orientation, which is a tendency to communicate in a humorous manner. Students report more learning from teachers with high humor orientations, especially those students high in humor orientation themselves. Furthermore, laboratory experiments have repeatedly demonstrated that, when other factors are held constant, humorous information is recalled more easily than non-humorous information. Finally, research conducted in real-world settings has found that lectures with humorous examples of key concepts increased student test scores compared to those same lectures without humorous examples.

In order to maximize the positive effects of instructional humor, the research suggests a few strategies. First, educators should only use humor with which they are comfortable. A teacher does not have to be funny to be effective. Not everyone is funny, and there are few things worse than an unfunny person trying to be humorous. However, in order for instructors low in humor orientation to benefit from the positive aspects of humor, they might consider incorporating a humorous video clip or adding a cartoon to their slides. This strategy can inject humor but make the burden of spontaneous humor less cumbersome.

Second, the research is clear that the only appropriate humor is the type of humor related with positive perceptions of the instructor and the learning environment. To build feelings of warmth and closeness with students, instructors should avoid negative or hostile humor, especially humor that isolates students from the teacher and class, or makes fun of students for their ignorance, inappropriate behaviors, or failure to grasp lecture material. These types of humor, although they may be effective behavioral deterrents in some cases, are highly likely to create a climate of fear, anxiety, and even hostility in the classroom. Instead, teachers should utilize humor that laughs with students rather than at them.

Third, instructors need to be sensitive to their students’ age and the setting when incorporating humor. Younger children may fail to understand irony, exaggerations, or distortions common to humor, and so, they may mistakenly learn incorrect or inaccurate information. With older students, humor that is relevant to the material being presented should be used. With all age groups, the more formal context of education needs to be of primary importance. Racial, sexist, or sexual humor may work in a comedy club, but it is inappropriate in an educational setting. Additionally, non-stop humor is expected from comedians, but too much humor can harm the credibility of the instructor. Research indicates approximately four jokes per hour is optimal.

For instructor humor to be an effective teaching tool, student must be able to “get” it. For this reason, references to humorous scenes from older television programs or films may be funny to an instructor but are more likely to confuse rather than amuse students. Additionally, political humor may not work in a classroom unless students are especially politically aware. Even in those situations, an instructor must be careful not to appear to pick on one political “side” more than another. Any apparent bias could offend some students.

Fourth, if the goal of instructional humor is to increase learning and students’ ability to remember course material and not merely to lighten the mood, specific steps should be followed. The instructional humor should illustrate a concept that has just been taught, and instructors should then summarize the material again after the laughter subsides. Learning requires information to be remembered, and this strategy utilizes humor’s ability to enhance recall of course material. This strategy also takes advantage of humor’s ability to heighten attention and interest. Paraphrasing the concept again after the humor reinforces the information and improves learning. When these steps are used along with exams that test the humorous course material, scores should increase.

About the author (s)

John Banas

University of Oklahoma

Assistant Professor

Norah Dunbar

University of Oklahoma

Associate Professor

Shr-Jie Liu

University of Oklahoma

Doctoral Candidate

Dariela Rodriguez

University of Oklahoma

Doctoral Candidate