Humour Is Essential In The Classroom — And It's Not Just About Jokes

In military instructional institutions around the world, it is customary to begin lessons with a couple of minutes of jokes. This is done with military precision, so it might or might not have the desired effect of lightening up the audience — but the principle holds. You’ve probably come across instructors who spend a few minutes saying something goofy, cracking a couple of jokes, and then proceeding with the lecture. Why do they do it at all? Well, a joke isn’t worth much by itself, but it paves the way for the serious stuff to come.

But beyond jokes, we’re talking about humour. Humour can engage any audience. Can it help the learning process? 

Very much. Essentially, humour relieves the tension that typically exists in a classroom, thus making for an atmosphere conducive to learning.

There are several reasons for that tension, or anxiety, to exist. Ron Deiter of the department of economics at Iowa State University, in The Use of Humor as a Teaching Tool in the College Classroom, says: “Students ... view ... college classes as ‘triple threat’ courses — boring, difficult, and stressful. ... Dullness in the classroom can kill student intellectual interest ... Teaching effectively requires imagination and creativity to turn students on by turning negative perceptions off. Using humor can be a successful teaching tool for that purpose.” 

The way I see it, it’s all about situational anxiety. A formal classroom is not unlike a party where one meets many strangers at once. Who can I be comfortable with? What should I say if this person approaches me? Once the ice is broken by some means, conversation flows freely.

A major reason for classroom anxiety is the instructor himself. Deiter (above) says there is a “barrier to communication between the professor and the students,” and that this is also a barrier to learning — with the barrier stemming from differences between instructor and students in terms of position, age, title, and income. Along the same lines, Dr Huss of Northern Kentucky University has said that laughter and humour “humanise” the instructor.

Other reasons for classroom anxiety include: Not perceiving oneself as part of the group (that is, the class); negatively anticipating that one might not understand the subject matter; and being disconnected from the subject (i.e., boredom) as a result of these.

So what does “humour” mean? Deiter quotes Berk1 defining humour as “the kindly contemplation of the incongruities of life and the artistic expression thereof.” Philosopher Arthur Koestler wrote that humour is created when two diverse levels of experience are brought together (the creation of tension) and then contrasted; when the contrast is perceived, that tension is relieved. For example, think of this old joke: 

Why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side.

The diverse levels of experience here are the extraordinary (a chicken crossing a road) and the pedestrian (a person getting to the other side of a road). 

Humour defuses tension — by mechanism and also by effect.

When student anxiety is relieved, it paves the way for easy interaction with the instructor and with other students. This, in turn, leads to increased engagement and motivation, and therefore interest and attention. 

The key word here is probably engagement — which brings with it better comprehension and retention.

Deiter (above) gives examples of humour that an instructor can use, apart from the joke. He mentions quotes, cartoons, current news items, and self-effacing comments. Each of these, if they pepper the class session (rather than being given a time slot at the beginning), serve to continually keep students at ease — and therefore engaged.

The idea is not for an instructor to be a stand-up comedian. It is about reminding students that the classroom, and the subject, are not removed from reality. Humour achieves this by continually “re-humanising” the situation.

 

References

1. Berk, Ronald A. 1998. Professors are From Mars, Students are From Snickers, Madison, WI: Mendota Press.