George Lucas Educational Foundation Celebrating our 25th Anniversary!
PrintPrint
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share

E.B. White famously quipped, "Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process." At the risk of committing some sort of "humor-cide," a type of scientific dissection must take place if teachers are to consider harnessing the powerful effects of humor, not only to increase joy and enhance the classroom environment, but also to improve learner outcomes.

The Funny Bone Is Connected to the Sense of Wonder

Teachers understand that humor is inherently social. How many times have you heard that same "Orange who?" knock-knock joke spread through your classroom? The contagious nature of humor naturally builds a sense of community (PDF, 731KB) by lowering defenses and bringing individuals together. If the brain is faced with an inconsistency, then laughter is the response when it is resolved in an unexpected way. This sentence, "Memorization is what we resort to when what we are learning makes no sense," may make us smile as our brains resolve its inconsistency.

Essentially, humor activates our sense of wonder, which is where learning begins, so it seems logical that humor could enhance retention. A Pew Research poll showed that viewers of humorous news shows such as The Daily Show and The Colbert Report exhibited higher retention of news facts than those who got their news from newspapers, CNN, Fox News, or network stations. When Stephen Colbert demands, "If we don't cut expensive things like Head Start, child nutrition programs, and teachers, what sort of future are we leaving for our children?", viewers laugh and also retain the knowledge of that specific budget issue.

A substantial body of research explains why we remember things that make us laugh, such as our favorite, hilarious high school moment or the details of that funny movie we saw last weekend. Neuroscience research reveals that humor systematically activates the brain's dopamine reward system, and cognitive studies show that dopamine is important for both goal-oriented motivation and long-term memory, while educational research indicates that correctly-used humor can be an effective intervention to improve retention in students from kindergarten through college.

Foolishness as a Tool

What does "correctly used" mean? Let’s take a closer look at some of the classroom research to find out. In one study, researchers asked nearly 400 college students to document their teachers' appropriate or inappropriate use of humor, their effectiveness as teachers, and how students perceived the humor. The results of this study showed that related, appropriate humor resulted in increased retention, while inappropriate, cruel, or unrelated humor did not. The study also discovered that humor can be perceived and appreciated without improving retention -- essentially, the student can think a teacher is "funny" but not show an improvement in retention. So, just being silly may get your students' attention, but may not lead to better retention. These researchers concluded that for improved retention, appropriate, topic-related instructional humor is most effective.

"According to recent surveys, 51 percent of the people are in the majority.” Did that statistics joke make you smile? Statistics may not be the first field that comes to mind when you think of content-related humor, but researchers wondered if humor could increase retention even in typically "dry" courses. In this study, college students listened to statistics lectures with and without content-related humor. They were then tested over the material and completed surveys regarding their enjoyment of the lectures. The test and survey results showed that retention was strongest in the lectures with content-related humor, and that students reported more enjoyment in the experience.

Age-Appropriate Humor

What about using humor with adolescents? If the idea of using humor in front of a classroom of judgmental teenagers makes you more nervous than a rookie teacher in his or her first parent-teacher conference, consider the research showing that adolescents tend to release more dopamine and have more dopamine receptors than adults. Because of their hyper-responsive dopamine reward system, adolescents may be uniquely primed to react positively to educational humor. Try telling a funny story or allowing your students to come up with humorous examples in their projects or discussions. Teach Like a Pirate has some great ideas for enhancing the humor in a high school classroom.

The children's TV show Sesame Street has harnessed the power of humor for decades. If you were asked to recall something from watching Sesame Street as a child, could you? Most likely, yes. You may remember Grover's silly antics, Mr. Noodles' constant confusion, or Big Bird struggling to get his friends to believe Mr. Snuffleupagus was real. That's why researchers chose Sesame Street episodes to test the impact of humor on retention and engagement in young children. Kindergarten and first grade students watched either a humorous or non-humorous Sesame Street segment. When content was tested, the children who watched the humorous segments scored higher and showed better engagement than the control group. Their engagement transferred even to the non-humorous portions of the lessons, resulting in improved retention throughout.

Here are some research-supported tips for using humor to increase retention:

Do

  • Use humor to enhance classroom joy
  • Use humor to develop a sense of community
  • Use content-related humor
  • Use age-appropriate humor
  • "Sandwich" humor between instruction and repetition

Avoid

  • Sarcasm
  • Cruel or inappropriate humor
  • Forced humor
  • Off-topic humor
  • Too much humor

About That Frog. . .

To sum up, we can turn to a meta-analysis of 40 years of educational humor research indicating that humor increases the strength of human connections, and that non-aggressive, relevant, appropriate humor appears to be a helpful learning tool. It seems to be particularly useful to sandwich humor between instruction and repetition. The authors of this meta-analysis caution that not everyone is naturally humorous, so educators shouldn't force it. Watching someone struggle to be funny is a very awkward experience and can defeat the purpose. Developmental differences must also be considered, as younger students may find irony, sarcasm, and exaggeration difficult to understand.

Although we may have slaughtered the proverbial frog in this analysis, these studies indicate that the use of appropriate, content-specific humor to reinforce concepts can be a positive tool to improve retention. Educators can utilize humor's systematic activation of the dopamine reward system to reinforce the brain's pathways to new knowledge.

Have you noticed humor-enhanced retention in your classroom?

Was this useful? (7)

Comments (24) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

James Stanfield Company's picture
James Stanfield Company
The Specialists in Special Education

Ms. B, that's great to hear! Humor is truly key in any setting, especially a classroom setting. Though we aren't direct teachers, as a company, we like to create materials for students that contain humor & make them laugh. We have noticed, time after time, that humor really helps them retain information and makes the learning and comfort experience that much better for them.

Farah Najam's picture
Farah Najam
Teacher Trainer and write on education

Whether you see humor in the classroom as a well-earned option or a utilitarian strategy to infuse young brains with learning (or somewhere in between), seeing your learners smile or laugh with a spark of comprehension can make a teacher's day.

JanicaB.'s picture

A lot of people assume that in order for
something to be deemed humorous, it
must evoke laughter. And while stand-up
comedians may use that as a measure of
success, that's not the case for humor at
work. Anything that relaxes the body, gets
people to breathe, causes a smile, or
elicits happiness is humor. I like this article because I believe that students get much of the attention of their teachers if they know that their teacher has a sense of humor. Although it doesn't all the time help in the retention of the student, I don't find reasons to contradict with teachers being humorous in the classroom. As long as they are doing it for good.
In fact, the tendency in the corporate world
is to suppress laughter. And as silly as it
seems, there are a number of reasons why
people don't laugh at work . But the use
of humor can help change that.

Laura Davis's picture
Laura Davis
Teacher in Honolulu, HI

It's great to have some research to support what seems right intuitively! I often use quick improvisation games to start the class and get them laughing together as a group.
About the point you made against using sarcasm:
I don't use it with students (juniors and seniors) but many of the most well-loved teachers in my high school do. They say it is honest because it is who they, as teachers, see the world as individuals and also keeps students on their toes. Have you seen any examples of sarcasm actually helping to build community like I have observed?

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Media teacher

Hi Laura,
My first response is to wonder about how those teachers use sarcasm. I think the real danger of sarcasm in the classroom is that it is usually used to mock or ridicule someone or something, and of course that is never OK (I don't care how beloved a teacher is). What are the teachers being sarcastic about?

There is also the possibility that although these teachers are well-loved, there may be many students (usually the shy, quiet ones) who live in fear of being mocked by these sarcastic teachers. So although the confident students may enjoy the sarcasm, other students (who are not strong enough to challenge the "well-loved" teachers) do not enjoy it. That's what I've seen at my middle school. Curious to know about the specifics of these teachers' sarcasm!

Rusul Alrubail's picture
Rusul Alrubail
Edutopia Community Facilitator/ Student Voice & Literacy at The Writing Project

My caution with sarcasm is that not only does it mock as Laura Bradley mentions, but in some cultures sarcasm is lost in translation and often taken literally because not all cultures use sarcasm.

Laura Davis's picture
Laura Davis
Teacher in Honolulu, HI

I guess the times I have seen it used in a way that appeared to be positive was when a teacher had a good relationship with a student and used it to joke with the student, joshing them about their consistent behavior breaking school rules. For example, imagine a student that is regularly out of dress code and the teacher sends them to the dean every morning.
Teacher: "You are out of dresscode again. Go to the dean."
Student: "Arg, can't you just overlook it today this once?"
Teacher: "Yes, I'm going to bend the rules for you because you are a very special snowflake."
Student: "Haha"
Teacher: "Come back to class after you talk to the dean."
Student: "Ok."
In this instance the teacher was able to enforce a rule without becoming an unapproachable authority figure--a difficult balance teachers are often expected to achieve.

Again, I don't use this method myself, but for years many of my colleagues have and it has puzzled me why it seems to work for them when the majority of teacher training counsels against it. Could it be that there are nuances to sarcasm that are overlooked when we generalize that it is bad for students?

judyd123's picture

Humor is a very effective teaching tool. Humor used in the classroom to help teach a skill or a concept must have a purpose. I have taught skills to my kindergarten class by telling funny stories about my crazy cat Max. My students laugh, but make a connection through humor to learn. Laughing always does a heart good.

Daphne Levenson's picture
Daphne Levenson
Trainer for Public Safety, Schools, Governments and Parents

Thank YOU!! I teach primarily law enforcement but also school officials, teens and parents on topics such as social media safety, sexting and sextortion. Law Enforcement trainers are usually very militant, dry and serious and you would think such awful topics would not lend themselves to ANY humor but that is one of my most frequent comments on evaluations " GREAT USE OF HUMOR." I use clips from the Daily Show and many YouTube resources to add a lighter side to the class. Participants love it, remember it and recommend me - I have always wondered at WHY & HOW it works, thanks for explaining it to me!!!!

miamirealestate's picture

A growing body of research suggests that, when used effectively, classroom comedy can improve student performance by reducing anxiety, boosting participation and increasing students' motivation to focus on the material.

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.