This entire issue is in response to reader Yvonne W., who had a question about something she heard in an episode of the Hidden Brain podcast; in it, the hosts mentioned a study from 1988 where learners who were taught classroom material with humor integrated into the instructional delivery retained more information than the control group did. “A little humor used judiciously in client training might be beneficial,” Yvonne wrote. This is a theory I don’t disagree with! But, in true LSW form, I wanted to dig into the science behind using humor in instructional settings. So, thanks for the request, Yvonne!
One thing I’ll note: while there’s been over 50 years of research on humor in learning, most studies did not empirically test whether there was any correlation between learners’ perceptions of instructional humor and their actual learning gains (as measured by a pre-test/post-test). A lot of the experiments, including one listed below, measured concepts like engagement, motivation, and attitudes towards instructors, not actual learning. There’s a clear research opportunity to explore how the use of humor in instruction can impact customer education.
Humor and Learner Engagement
In a recent mixed methods study, researchers attempted to answer the question, “How do humorous online learning components affect student engagement?” The experimental (n = 37) and control (n = 37) groups were constructed considering prior knowledge and sense of humor (as measured by the Humor Styles Questionnaire scale developed by Martin, Puhlik-Doris, Larsen, Gray, & Weir, 2003). The study was carried out within the scope of an “Introduction to Programming” course.
Researchers tracked the different measures of student engagement (as diagrammed here, in the world’s most amazing chart). Humor elements were integrated into the course for the experimental group for four different usage purposes—attention, recall, feedback, and humor break.
The results of this study were mixed and detailed below (and also in a glorious diagram) based on the type of engagement (because, yes, there are different types of engagement):
- Behavioral engagement: humor had an overall positive effect on elements like discussions and assignments but caused time management problems during quizzes
- Emotional engagement: researchers reported that humor had a positive effect on attention and course perception; in this experiment, humorous content reduced boredom, increased motivation, reduced stress, and changed perspectives towards the exam.
- Cognitive engagement: humorous elements helped students with content recall, information sharing, self-regulation, and learning facilitation, but it disrupted concentration.
Key Takeaway: In this small study, researchers discovered that humor can positively affect some types of learner engagement.
Read More (open): Erdoğdu, F., Çakıroğlu, Ü. (2021). The educational power of humor on student engagement in online learning environments. Research and Practice in Technology Enhanced Learning, 16(9).
Seriously, Use Serious Examples
Researchers recently conducted a multi-phase study to test their hypothesis that students exposed to a lesson explained with humorous examples would perform worse on a test of retention and transfer compared with students exposed to an identical lesson explained with serious examples. The findings from both experiments were consistent: students who were exposed to humorous examples in the learning content scored lower on tests of those concepts than students exposed to serious examples. Why?
These researchers point to other studies that have found that humorous information can often be remembered better by students, but that information recall doesn’t increase actual learning -- and in fact, students were often distracted by the humorous content (leading to a phenomenon where they could remember a humorous story told by an instructor but couldn’t remember why it was important). “Specifically, humorous examples might lead students to focus on and remember the humor used in the examples at the expense of the underlying concepts being explained,” (Bolkan, Griffin, & Goodboy, 2018, p. 155).
Key Findings: Results of this study indicate that integrated humor can cause deficits in student learning.
Read More (open-ish, available via ResearchGate): Bolkan, S., Griffin, D. J., & Goodboy, A. K.. (2018). Humor in the classroom: the effects of integrated humor on student learning. Communication Education, 67(2), pp. 144-164.
A Review of Humor in Educational Settings
If you’re interested in reading more about humor in learning, I definitely recommend checking out the review conducted by Banas, Dunbar, Rodriguez, & Liu in 2011. This does an excellent job of defining humor, summarizing extant research in the field, and reviewing important findings. Highly recommended.
Pets of Learning Science Weekly
We’re ending on a bit of a sad note this week by featuring a photo of Venus, the beautiful shih tzu companion of reader David D. Venus turned 17 this year and passed away last week. I’m so sorry for your loss, David.
Based on David’s comment that Venus was “spoiled rotten and made me laugh every single day,” I’m guessing she knew just how much he loved her. Still, losing a pet is never easy. To honor her memory, I’ve made a donation to the Shih Tzu Rescue nonprofit.
Send me (hi, I'm Julia) your pet pics at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wondering why we’re including animal photos in a learning science newsletter? It may seem weird, we admit. But we’re banking on the baby schema effect and the “power of Kawaii.” So, send us your cute pet pics -- you’re helping us all learn better!
The LSW Crew
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