Humor in the classroom is something that can be quite tricky. I did saw enough teachers and teacher trainees who tried to be funny and who weren’t. Even worse: I did saw a few teachers who actually were very funny, but who were bad at teaching. Still, it’s true humor can have a positive impact on learning.
And now there is a very interesting study by Cooper and a lot of other people (check the list) on this very topic based on 3 experiments. So, what are their conclusions?
Overwhelmingly, students reported that they appreciated when instructors used humor….
…Students acknowledged that science courses can be stressful and that science content is especially difficult, but that humor helps lighten the mood of science classes, decreases stress levels, and improves students’ perceived ability to remember science content.
For the majority of students in this study, when science instructors used humor that students did not think was funny, it did not have an effect on their attention to course content, how relatable they perceived the instructor to be, or their sense of belonging to the class. Thus, if an instructor tells a joke that falls flat, it is likely not harming students.
However, this is not the case if students find an instructor’s use of humor to be offensive. We found that if students perceive a science instructor’s use of humor as offensive, it can negatively influence how relatable students perceive the instructor to be. Previous research also suggests that negative and hostile humor can harm student-instructor relationships, particularly if students previously perceived the instructor to be immediate, or physically and psychologically close with students, because the negative humor contradicts their warm and open style . Further, we found that instructors’ use of offensive humor tends to decrease student sense of belonging to the course, which has been shown to be an important predictor of student retention. Over 40% of students reported that offensive humor can also decrease their attention to course content. Offensive humor may negatively affect student attention because it increases student cognitive load, or the amount of information that a student can hold in their working memory. This may be particularly true for students if the joke is offensive because it targeted a social identity group that they belong to.
And in relation to gender:
Notably, if a college science instructor is able to tell a joke that males and females think is funny, our findings suggest that both genders benefit equally. Similarly, if a college science instructor tells a joke that males and females both perceive as offensive, there is little evidence to suggest that females would be more harmed than male students. Therefore, based on our findings, females are more likely to be negatively affected by humor because they find more subjects offensive, not because of their response to the offensive humor.
All very interesting, but… as with every study there are limitations and in this case there is a big one that the researchers correctly note: this research was conducted across multiple classes at one institution in the Southwestern United States.
Abstract of the study:
For over 50 years instructor humor has been recognized as a way to positively impact student cognitive and affective learning. However, no study has explored humor exclusively in the context of college science courses, which have the reputation of being difficult and boring. The majority of studies that explore humor have assumed that students perceive instructor humor to be funny, yet students likely perceive some instructor humor as unfunny or offensive. Further, evidence suggests that women perceive certain subjects to be more offensive than men, yet we do not know what impact this may have on the experience of women in the classroom. To address these gaps in the literature, we surveyed students across 25 different college science courses about their perceptions of instructor humor in college science classes, which yielded 1637 student responses. Open-coding methods were used to analyze student responses to a question about why students appreciate humor. Multinomial regression was used to identify whether there are gender differences in the extent to which funny, unfunny, and offensive humor influenced student attention to course content, instructor relatability, and student sense of belonging. Logistic regression was used to examine gender differences in what subjects students find funny and offensive when joked about by college science instructors. Nearly 99% of students reported that they appreciate instructor humor and reported that it positively changes the classroom atmosphere, improves student experiences during class, and enhances the student-instructor relationship. We found that funny humor tends to increase student attention to course content, instructor relatability, and student sense of belonging. Conversely, offensive humor tends to decrease instructor relatability and student sense of belonging. Lastly, we identified subjects that males were more likely to find funny and females were more likely to find offensive if a college science instructor were to joke about them.