GUEST POST: How to Use Humor in Order to Teach and Learn More Effectively
By Itamar Shatz
Itamar Shatz is a doctoral student at Cambridge University. His focus, outside of his studies, is on taking scientific and philosophical concepts that have practical applications, and showing people how to use them in the real world. He publishes his writing on his website, Effectiviology, where he covers topics such as optimal learning, mental performance, and social psychology.
Humor can have a powerful effect on people; research shows that when people find something funny, they tend to pay more attention to it, and remember it better in the long term (1, 2). Furthermore, humor has an invigorating effect, and can make people feel more interested in what’s going on, and more energized (3). These benefits are important, since they suggest that humor could be a valuable tool to use in educational contexts, both by teachers who are trying to teach better, as well as by students who are trying to facilitate their own learning.
The effectiveness of using humor in educational contexts has been corroborated by studies on the topic, which found that using humor in the classroom can help students learn the material better (4, 5, 6). One study, for example, looked at how using humor during lectures affects students’ performance in a college statistics course (4).
In the study, there were two groups of students, who attended classes separately. The lecturer used humor consistently throughout the semester in the lectures given to one of the groups, while avoiding humor in the lectures given to the other group. The lecturer used different forms of humor, such as funny anecdotes and cartoons, but made sure that the humor was always used in order to help explain specific concepts from the lectures. For example, in one case the lecturer was teaching the class about the concept of standard deviation (a statistical concept which expresses by how much members of a group differ from the mean value of that group). To illustrate it, he showed students a cartoon where an explorer is standing next to a group of natives, and explaining to them that there is no need to worry about crocodiles in their area, since the average length of crocodiles there is only about 50cm (~1.5ft). As he is saying that, a huge crocodile appears behind him and opens his mouth wide, at which point one of the natives says to the other: “this guy has better think of the standard deviation too”.
The use of humorous examples such as this one helped the students understand and remember the material better, and at the end of the semester, the students in the humor group ended up with an average grade that was ~14% higher than that of the students in the control group, where the lecturer did not use humor. The researchers then replicated this experiment in a college psychology course, and found similar results.
(Note that a potential limitation of this study is that although the teachers were told to teach exactly the same material, just without the use of humor when it came to the control group, the study doesn’t explicitly specify whether the same number of concrete examples were used when teaching the two groups, so it’s possible that the students in the humor group benefited from being exposed to more examples or better examples.)
This example illustrates how using simple humor in the classroom can lead to better learning outcomes for students. Furthermore, as noted above, in addition to improvements in performance, research also shows that the use of humor by instructors also leads to a better overall classroom environment. This leads students to report higher levels of motivation and satisfaction throughout the learning process, and to rate their lecturers more positively in their evaluations (5, 6).
However, although humor can be beneficial when it comes to teaching, it’s important to note that humor can also have a negative influence in some cases, such as when it’s excessive, inappropriate, or hurtful (5, 6, 7). Accordingly, when using humor in your teaching, it’s important to consider the type of humor that you’re planning to use and the way in which you’re planning to use it; we’ll see some guidelines regarding this soon.
Overall, the evidence that we saw so far demonstrates that, when used properly, humor can facilitate learning, both directly, by helping students remember the material better, as well as indirectly, by helping foster a more positive learning environment.
This means that humor can be a beneficial tool to use, whether you’re an educator or a student, so long as the humor is directly related to the topic being taught. There are many ways to use humor in this context, such as the following:
Showing a humorous comic to help illustrate an important point.
Using a humorous mnemonic to help remember a key concept.
Telling a humorous anecdote to help emphasize a significant issue.
In addition, when using humor as an educational tool, and particularly when using it as a teacher in the classroom, there are a few guidelines that are important to keep in mind, in order to guarantee that you’re using it as effectively as possible while avoiding potential issues:
The humor should primarily help students understand the information. Though it’s of course possible to use humor in general in order to make the classroom feel more welcoming, for the most part humor should be used primarily to help students understand key concepts in the material. As such, the humor should generally be connected to the material that is being studied, and serve some function in helping the students understand it.
The use of humor should be limited. Using humor too frequently could reduce its beneficial effect by diluting its salience, and might cause the students to feel more distracted. Use humor with the most important concepts to make them salient. There is no clear line regarding how much humor is too much, but it’s better to err on the side of caution, and prior research has shown that even three of four jokes in a single lesson can be highly effective in helping students learn (4).
The humor should be positive and appropriate. You should avoid humor that is inappropriate given the context, such as humor that is aggressive and aimed at specific students. This is important, since the use of this type of humor has been shown to lead to negative learning outcomes, and, when used by educators, can reduce their credibility in the eyes of the students (5, 6, 7).
In conclusion, the following are the main takeaways from the article:
Humor can be a powerful tool in educational settings, since it helps direct people’s attention, improves their ability to remember the material, and increases their energy levels as well as the enjoyment that they derive from the learning process.
Accordingly, humor can be an effective educational tool both when it comes to teaching others, as well as when it comes to facilitating your own learning.
You can employ humor as a learning aid in various ways, such as by thinking of a humorous mnemonic that helps memorize a key concept, or by finding a humorous example that helps illustrate a crucial point.
When using humor to facilitate learning, it’s important to make sure that the humor is connected to the material in some way, and to ensure that the use of humor is strategically limited to places where it can help the most.
If you’re using humor to teach others, make sure to use humor that is positive and appropriate, while avoiding negative humor, which involves things such as jokes that target specific groups of students.
(1) Carlson, K. A. (2011). The impact of humor on memory: Is the humor effect about humor?. Humor - International Journal of Humor Research, 24(1), 21-41.
(2) Strick, M., Holland, R. W., Van Baaren, R., & Van Knippenberg, A. (2009). Humor in the eye tracker: Attention capture and distraction from context cues. The Journal of General Psychology: Experimental, Psychological, and Comparative Psychology, 137(1), 37-48.
(3) Cheng, D., & Wang, L. (2015). Examining the energizing effects of humor: The influence of humor on persistence behavior. Journal of Business and Psychology, 30(4), 759-772.
(4) Ziv, A. (1988). Teaching and learning with humor: Experiment and replication. The Journal of Experimental Education, 57(1), 4-15.
(5) Garner, R. L. (2006). Humor in pedagogy: How ha-ha can lead to aha!. College Teaching, 54(1), 177-180.
(6) Banas, J. A., Dunbar, N., Rodriguez, D., & Liu, S. J. (2011). A review of humor in educational settings: Four decades of research. Communication Education, 60(1), 115-144.
(7) Wanzer, M. B., Frymier, A. B., & Irwin, J. (2010). An explanation of the relationship between instructor humor and student learning: Instructional humor processing theory. Communication Education, 59(1), 1-18.