Is Using Humor in the Classroom Beneficial Or Detrimental to Student Learning?
Communication scholars and researchers from related disciplines have spent considerable time studying how teacher behaviors, such as the promotion of autonomous motivation and clarity, work to enhance student learning. While some behaviors have consistent effects, the impact of others are not well understood. In particular, when it comes to humor, the results have been mixed. In a new article published in NCA journal Communication Education, authors San Bolkan, Darrin J. Griffin, and Alan K. Goodboy examine the results from two studies that explore the use of integrated humor in the classroom.
Previous research on instructor humor in the classroom has shown that humor is an effective approach to “entertain students, alleviate anxiety related to learning, create a positive academic climate, and produce an enjoyable atmosphere for learning.” But the authors note that beyond the impact humor has on the atmosphere of the classroom, its impact on learning has yet to be demonstrated convincingly. One reason for this may be because there are various ways that teachers can use humor to instruct their students, whether it is via physical comedy, general or personal anecdotes, language or logic, etc. An added dimension is that there are two approaches that instructors can utilize when they convey humor:
- Contiguous: Humor that is not tied to the content of an educational message in an integral manner, is separated from an instructional message by time, and can be related or unrelated to core content.
- Integrated: Humor that is embedded in instructional lessons or activities and occurs when humorous information is incorporated into core instructional messages.
Based on these two approaches, the authors developed their hypothesis that using integrated humor to illustrate course concepts has the potential to interfere with the lesson by causing students to become preoccupied with the humor itself. Specifically, the authors reasoned that “though contiguous humor might be beneficial for motivating individuals to engage with their educational environments, integrated humor may function as a source of distraction for students.”
Testing the Hypothesis: Two Studies
The authors devised two studies to test their hypothesis that students who were exposed to a lesson explained with humorous examples would perform worse on a test of retention and transfer, compared with students who were exposed to an identical lesson explained with serious examples.
Eighty-seven students spread across upper- and lower-level Communication classes read a brief lesson, answered a few questions about their perceptions of the lesson, and took a short multiple-choice test on the information in the lesson. Students were randomly assigned to read a lesson with humorous examples, or an identical lesson with standard/serious examples. The students noted the extent to which they found the lessons to be humorous, concrete, interesting, and clear.
- Result #1: Students exposed to the humorous lesson found the information to be more humorous, compared with students exposed to the standard/serious lesson.
- Result #2: Holding constant perceptions of concreteness, interestingness, and clarity, students exposed to the humorous lesson scored lower (by 13.5 percent) on their exam scores compared with students exposed to the standard/serious lesson.
In this study, the results “suggest that when instructors incorporate humor into their educational messages, they potentially depress students’ ability to retain and transfer the ideas being presented.”
The authors deemed it necessary to conduct a replication study using a new student population, a new lesson, a new learning environment, and a new test of retention and transfer. Moreover, in addition to answering multiple-choice questions about the lesson, students also answered several open-ended questions. Ninety-three students participated in this study (at a different institution), and were randomly assigned to read a lesson explained with humorous examples or an identical lesson with standard/serious examples.
- Result #1: Students exposed to the humorous lesson found the information to be more humorous, compared with students exposed to the standard lesson.
- Result #2: Holding constant perceptions of concreteness, interestingness, and clarity, students exposed to the humorous condition scored approximately 17 percent lower on the open-ended portion of the exam, compared with students exposed to the standard/serious lesson.
- Result #3: Holding constant perceptions of concreteness, interestingness, and clarity, students exposed to the humorous condition scored approximately 14 percent lower on the multiple-choice portion of the exam, compared with students exposed to the standard/serious lesson.
What Does It Mean for Instructors?
While the authors acknowledge that their results may appear to “run counter to previous claims that argue humor is beneficial in the classroom,” they contend that “this contradiction might simply be the result of the way humor has been variously operationalized.” Whereas (as this study suggests) integrated humor might lead to decrements in student learning, the authors contend that contiguous humor can be beneficial in the classroom. This is because when used in a contiguous manner, the positive emotional tone associated with classroom humor may operate as a general motivator that leads to long-term learning benefits. Ultimately, the authors conclude that the positive effects of humor likely do not stem from its ability to enhance information acquisition per se, but instead come from its ability to create a positive learning environment that motivates students to become engaged with their educational opportunities.
There are several limitations to this research, according to the authors. Their study only used a written medium for presenting the lesson, the timing was brief, and other variables such as students’ sense of humor and self-control were not taken into consideration. In particular, they note that their conclusion “is not likely to hold for all students under all teaching conditions.”
The authors do offer a few suggestions for instructors, however. “Instructors might be wise to be strategic in their implementation of [using humor in the classroom],” and they should be “wary of using integrated humor as examples to explain class concepts.” In addition, while contiguous humor may help to stave off boredom and to lighten the mood in class, “instructors need to appreciate that it might be possible to provide too much of a good thing.”