The journal Communication Education has recently published the report “A Review of Humor in Educational Settings: Four Decades of Research.” Four decades is a LOT of research to try and compile into one report, but the authors did a fairly comprehensive job. The report covers everything from the rate of humor used in the classroom, length of service differences and the types of humor utilized.
Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert provides us with a great example of the appropriateness of humor.
The report cites previous studies that show “the use of instructional humor to relieve tension may [be]
especially useful for teaching topics that are generally perceived by students to be
anxiety-provoking.“ Very quickly though the report covers the topic with more detail with regards to appropriateness and illustrates that there is potentially a fine line to walk. “Hostile or negative instructor humor use was related negatively to perceptions of a friendly classroom environment and related positively to student defensiveness.” It seems fairly easy to attribute the humor used by the “Pointy Haired Boss” above is more closely related to negative humor!
Textbooks Aren’t Funny
So with this being such a potentially volatile topic, some may wonder why even attempt to incorporate humor into the classroom. Textbooks don’t contain humor, lecture notes don’t contain humor, study guides don’t contain humor, the classroom by its very nature isn’t overly funny.
The study though helps us to understand that humor can potentially increase social influence in the classroom. People that use humor appropriately tend to be more well liked, and those that are more well liked tend to be more influential. Humor in the classroom can also be “used to create group cohesion through shared enjoyment.”
Risk vs Reward
The risk may well be worth the reward however. The report explores the relationship between the use of humor, level of experience, and teaching awards. Since the report is a compilation of various studies, there are some discrepancies as to whether humor is a function of length of service, or if those with longer lengths of service have more freedom to incorporate humor.
Humor With A Purpose
The report did find common ground on two important considerations though. “Award-winning teachers were careful not to attempt too much humor in the classroom” As mentioned above, this is a place of learning however and not necessarily a place to seek entertainment! Secondly, “award-winning teachers used significantly more humor that was relevant to the course material, and their humor was used for the purpose of clarifying course content more than nonaward winning teachers.”
Is Laughter The Best Medicine?
So is laughter really the best medicine? The jury still seems to be out without a definitive response, but it is certainly leaning that way. Instructors need to consider their level of comfort with humor, and the appropriateness of the topic. Not all topics lend themselves well to humor, and it certainly isn’t a requirement. Also, for those that aren’t comfortable using humor, the report reminds us “that there are few things worse than an unfunny person trying to be humorous.“