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Every teacher’s a comedian: using humor in the classroom

Teacher and students laughing.
Teacher and students laughing.Dean Mitchell/E+ Collection/GettyImages

Research has shown that laughter makes learning more enjoyable and reduces stress. The implication, therefore, is that if educators inject humor (verbal and nonverbal) and vivacity into their lessons, regardless of the subject—English for speakers of other languages, science, math, or numeracy—students learn and retain more information.

Without question, the primary role and expectation of an educator is to teach in ways that engage the multiple intelligences of students so that they comprehend the material regardless of the discipline or level of difficulty. Nevertheless, the style or approach that an educator uses to present course material has clear bearings on how well, or how much, adult students comprehend the information.

To this point, using humor in the adult classroom is an effective communication and instructional tool, and for good reason. As Zak Stambor states in “How Laughing Leads to Learning,” American Psychological Association, June 2006, “laughter has been shown to stimulate a physiological effect that decreases stress hormones such as serum cortisol, dopac, and epinephrine.”

For example, using humor may be particularly helpful on quiz or test days to alleviate students’ tension, stress or nervousness. A teacher could integrate amusing statements, anecdotes or behavior when she or he explains quiz or test instructions. The objective, of course, is always to ensure that the humor is appropriate, does not target or belittle any particular student and does not outweigh the learning, much in the same way that educators use appropriate games in the classroom to create teamwork and help students learn.

A domino effect is clearly at work. Humor not only reduces tension, stress or nervousness, it also increases likability. Educators who use humor create a more relaxed, but immediate environment. Thus, students are more likely to attend class because they “like the teacher,” whom they perceive as being immediate (in the moment, not distant or robotic), and they pay closer attention, which increases their learning.

Although there are clear benefits of using humor and laughter effectively in the adult classroom, this does not mean that teachers should suddenly become stand-up comedians who tell jokes at every turn. Some teachers might not feel comfortable using humor; however, using certain behaviors such as gestures, cadence, smiling and laughing help to create an immediate, relaxed and enhanced learning environment.

Finally, all educators should be careful of overusing self-deprecating humor lest they lose their credibility and the perception of competence that students have of them. The objective is simply to use appropriate humor occasionally as an instructional and communication tool to create an enjoyable classroom in which learning is emphasized.

Educators who are interested in learning more about the use of humor in the classroom could access a variety of research and references at the New York Public Library’s circulating collections of the Mid-Manhattan Library, Fifth Avenue at 40th Street, or its four research libraries and online databases. Available for review are articles and research reports from a host of periodicals, including Communication Education and Journal of Educational Psychology and Humor: International Journal of Humor Research.