Using Humorous Examples During Instruction Hampers Student Learning

Using Humorous Examples During Instruction Hampers Student Learning

During each lesson, teachers face two pressing tasks: (1) teaching students content in a way that will help them best understand and recall that information, and (2) keeping students’ attention. To accomplish this, many teachers may choose to incorporate humor into their lessons, using funny examples to illustrate a point. However, in their paper, “Humor in the classroom: the effects of integrated humor on student learning,” authors San Bolkan et al. argue that using humorous examples to explain content to students actually hampers students’ ability to recall information from the lesson (154).

For Bolkan et al., it is important to understand the distinction between contiguous humor and integrated humor. Contiguous humor is humor teachers use outside of instructional time, and it may or may not be related to the course content (146). Integrated humor is humor that teachers use during instruction that is intended to illustrate a point (146).

Previous research has shown that contiguous humor can be beneficial in creating a positive, energetic class environment. Bolkan et al. remark that contiguous humor has been linked to “instructional benefits including students’ motivation, their positive attitudes toward instructors, students’ perceptions of instructor sociability and credibility,” as well as the alleviation of student anxiety in class (144-145).

While contiguous humor can be beneficial for students and teachers, integrated humor—funny examples used for instructional purposes—has been shown to harm student learning. To reach this conclusion, Bolkan et al. conducted two studies (one original, one replicate study) with undergraduate students. During both studies, students were asked to “(1) read through a lesson, (2) answer a few questions about their perceptions of the lesson, and (3) take a test on the information provided in the lesson” (148). To keep conditions as similar as possible, the lesson was given in written form, rather than through instructor presentation. Students were randomly assigned to either the humor group or the standard/serious group. The only difference between the lessons for the two groups was that examples used to illustrate the content in the humor group were funny, and the examples used to illustrate the (same) content in the serious group were serious (148).

After reading the lesson and answering questions about their perceptions of the lesson (e.g. was it interesting, clear, funny, etc.), students were given a 10-minute distractor task before answering test questions based on the lesson. In the first study, students answered 5 multiple choice questions about the lesson (149). In the second study, students answered 4 open-ended questions and 5 multiple choice questions about the lesson (152).

The Findings:

“Results from both of our studies reveal that students who were exposed to humorous examples scored lower on tests of those concepts than students exposed to serious examples” (154).

  • Students who were shown humorous examples scored roughly 13.5% lower on the multiple choice test questions than students who were shown serious examples (150).
  • For the open-ended test questions, students in the humor group scored roughly 17% lower than students in the standard/serious group (153).

“These results suggest that when instructors incorporate humor into their educational messages, they potentially depress students’ ability to retain and transfer the ideas being presented” (151).

Bolkan et al. explain that humorous example may impede student learning because the examples might be more memorable than the content itself, confusing, or distracting (154). The authors argue that teachers should be “wary of using integrated humor as examples to explain class concepts” (157). However, teachers should also keep in mind the benefits of using humor outside of instruction (contiguous humor) and should find appropriate times to use humor to develop a positive classroom environment and relationships with students.

Paper Title:  Humor in the classroom: the effects of integrated humor on student learning

Authors: San Bolkan (California State University, Long Beach), Darrin J. Griffin (University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa), and Alan K. Goodboy (West Virginia University, Morgantown)

Full Paper:

Published: Communication Education, Volume 67, No. 2, 2018, Pages 144-164