Laughter and Learning: Humor Boosts Retention
Humor activates the brain’s dopamine reward system, stimulating goal-oriented motivation and long-term memory, which means that humor can improve retention in students of all ages.
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.
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:
- 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
- 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?