Humor on Learning in the College Classroom: Evaluating Benefits and Drawbacks from Instructors' Perspectives

By Lei, Simon A.; Cohen, Jillian L. et al. | Journal of Instructional Psychology, December 2010 | Go to article overview
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Humor on Learning in the College Classroom: Evaluating Benefits and Drawbacks from Instructors' Perspectives


Lei, Simon A., Cohen, Jillian L., Russler, Kristen M., Journal of Instructional Psychology


Some college instructors believe that the only way for students to take their education seriously is to be serious and solemn in the classroom. This often means creating a strict classroom environment built on discipline and hard work, perhaps with little or no room for discussion and laughter. However, the most effective instructors are those who engage their students in creative and interesting ways. One way to engage students is to incorporate humor into the college classroom. Humor has psychological, social, and cognitive (educational) benefits. Humor has the power to make instructors more likable, approachable, facilitate comprehension, increase attentiveness, improve creativity, and promote social relationships. Humor is an appreciated teaching tool for instructors to facilitate student learning if using it appropriately, constructively, and in moderation. This article briefly reviews how the use of various types of humor affects student learning, along with appropriate and inappropriate uses of humor at the college level.

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The stereotypes of college instructors are someone who are quiet, intelligent, knowledgeable, but rather dull and dry (Ziegler, 1998). If college students look back on their educational career, they are likely to have experienced those dry, dull instructors that never seemed to smile or have fun. Instructors may have taken their subjects so seriously because that was how they were taught, or because traditional attitudes about the instructor-student relationship was a stem and professional one in order to invoke a sense of seriousness and maturity. Humor used to be regarded as a source of distraction that reduced classroom teaching efficiency (Torok et al., 2004). Yet, laughing in class does not mean students are not taking the class and subject matter seriously. Laughter implies that students are awake and listening to what instructors are saying (Weaver and Cotrell, 1987). Fortunately, students have ushered in a new era of respect, cheerfulness, and a joyful learning presentation (Check, 1997). Today, humor has a solid place in classroom lectures due to its many proven psychological, social, and cognitive (educational) benefits towards teaching (Torok et al., 2004).

When college students are asked to identify what makes a good instructor, among the first characteristics noted is a sense of humor. Students often remember their favorite instructors as being those who created a fun environment and made them laugh. Fun is one of the five primary needs of humans alongside survival, belonging, power, and freedom (Pollak and Freda, 1997). A survey of 923 college, high school, and junior high school students asked whether they preferred instructors who used humor in the classroom. Results have shown that 84% of these students truly enjoyed instructors who used a regular to frequent amount of humor (check, 1997). Less than 1% of students have said that they preferred instructors who used no humor at all, indicating that humorless instructors are far less popular and appreciated (Check, 1997).

According to Shatz and LoSchiavo (2005), students expect college instructors to be boring and dull; yet, when instructors attempt to be humorous, they respect the fact that instructors attempting to make the class and subject matter interesting. Online classes are usually perceived as distant and impersonal, but the use of humor can motivate and capture students' attention and interest in learning new materials. When humor such as cartoons, self-deprecating jokes, and top ten lists are used in online courses, students have more interest and appreciation in the course (Shatz and LoShiavo, 2005). Students were randomly assigned to either a full-blown online course section or a humor-enhanced section. Results have indicated that students in the humor-enhanced section posted more comments on the discussion boards and participated more actively compared to humorless section of the same course (Shatz and LoSchiavo, 2005).

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Humor on Learning in the College Classroom: Evaluating Benefits and Drawbacks from Instructors' Perspectives
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