Faculty Focus


Stop Me If You've Heard This One: The Benefits of Humor in the Classroom

The contribution that humor makes to student learning is well established in research. It is not that humor causes learning; rather, it helps to create conditions conducive to learning. It helps learners relax, alleviates stress, and often makes it easier for students and teachers to connect personally. The presence of humor in a classroom can be very beneficial.

But there are a couple of problems. First, faculty often don’t think of themselves as funny—some are, but most academics would not make a living as stand-up comedians. In fact, any number of faculty cannot successfully tell a joke, even after carefully rehearsing the lines and easing their tension with liquid libations. So, how might a serious academic find his or her way to humor that works in the classroom?

And then there’s the problem of propriety. Not all humor is appropriate, especially given the commitment of higher education to cultural respect, diversity, and equality. If you can’t make jokes about ethnicity, politics, religion, or sex, is there anything left for one-liners?

Fortunately some recent research offers help on both fronts. For faculty who don’t think they can be funny in the classroom, there is a wide range of different kinds of humor. Options abound. Early research (referenced in the article below) identified seven different kinds of humor: funny stories, funny comments, jokes, professional humor, puns, cartoons, and riddles.

The purpose of the study referenced below was to identify what students consider appropriate and inappropriate humor. Researchers did that by asking 284 undergraduates to list several examples of “appropriate and suitable” humor and then asking them to do the same for humor that was “offensive and/or not fitting for the class.” The students had no trouble identifying examples in both categories.

This student sample generated 712 examples of appropriate teacher humor, which researchers placed in four different categories. The first, which contained almost half the listed examples, researchers called “related humor.” This humor linked with course materials; examples included a physics instructor who regularly played with a Slinky to demonstrate certain physics principles or another who used course material in jokes: “What do you call someone who likes to go out a lot?” Answer: “Fungi.”

The second category was unrelated humor. These first two categories contained more than 90 percent of the examples students provided, although researchers note that there was overlap between the two categories. Examples in this second category include some teasing of student groups or individual students, or some stereotypical student behavior such as procrastinating.

The remainder of the appropriate examples were self-disparaging humor in which the instructor made jokes or told stories that poked fun at or belittled him or herself. Then there was a very small category of unintentional or unplanned humor when something funny happened spontaneously in class.

Equally valuable in this research is the analysis of inappropriate humor, for which students offered 513 examples, which researchers again placed in four categories: disparaging humor targeting students, disparaging humor targeting others, offensive humor, and self-disparaging humor.

More than 40 percent of the examples fell into the first category where instructors disparaged students individually or collectively. Students were disparaged for their lack of intelligence, gender, or appearance, as well as for their opinions.

When the disparaging humor targeted others, it used stereotypes and such specific group characteristics as gender, race/ethnicity, or university affiliation. Some inappropriate humor examples were listed as offensive because they contained sexual material or vulgar verbal or nonverbal expressions, or they were too personal.

In conclusion, researchers encourage faculty to explore humor related to the course content. Students always considered it appropriate. Moreover, many reported that it helped them relate and recall important course information.

Reference: Wanzer, M. B., Frymier, A. B., Wojtaszczyk, A. M., and Smith, T. 2006. Appropriate and inappropriate uses of humor by teachers. Communication Education 55 (2): 178–96.

Excerpted from Humor: Getting a Handle on What’s Appropriate, The Teaching Professor, Feb. 2007.