October 22, 2013

Laughter and Learning

by Jonathan Grant, Pharm.D., PGY1 Community Pharmacy Practice Resident, Johns Hopkins Home Care Group

Is there a role in the classroom for laughter that leads to learning?  Or is laughter merely a distraction caused by side conversations between students?  Educators are constantly looking for better ways to engage students to enhance the learning experience.  A few studies suggest that humor produces psychological and physiological benefits that help students learn.1  While humor can be used during any of Gagne’s 9 Events of Instruction, it  is perhaps most effective as means to gain attention, present new the material, and assess performance. The use of humor can serve as an attention grabber, stimulate students’ multiple intelligences, and appeal to various learning styles.

Laughter can engage students. Studies have shown that students were more likely to recall information about a lecture when it was interjected with jokes relevant to the topic.1 For example, Randy Garner, PhD, used the following during a lecture about statistics and research methods — a metaphorical joke about a planned escape from prison between two prisoners in a jail located in the middle of a desert.2  One prisoner tries to escape alone after an unsuccessful attempt to persuade the other to go with him. The prisoner escapes only to find miles and miles of sand.  He is captured and returned to his cell. Upon his return, the prisoner that escaped exclaimed, “You knew! Why didn’t you tell me!?” whereupon the other remarks, “Silly man, you should know no one reports negative results.”2 Well planned, appropriate, and contextual humor help students associate concepts from various courses.  Humor can include the use of self-deprecating jokes, cartoons related to the material, and appropriate situational humor.

In one study comparing humor-enhanced sessions with “standard” online course delivery, students were more likely to log onto Blackboard and stated that they enjoyed classes that used humor effectively.3 In the study, students assigned to the humor-enhanced section used social/interactive features (such as lectures, features, course documents, etc., more than the standard section).  This was determined by monitoring the number of mouse clicks in each Blackboard course category throughout a ten week academic term. The humor-enhanced section registered a significantly higher average number of clicks when compared to the standard section (583 vs. 418; p < 0.05).3 Although there were no significant differences in final grades between the two groups, the humor-enhanced group earned a significantly higher class participation points than the standard group (98 vs. 92 points;  p < 0.05).3  One major limitation to this study was the relatively small sample size — each section included only 22 students.  I believe larger studies need to be conducted to further validate the results.

In addition to helping to enhance the learning experience, humor has been linked with other psychological and physiological benefits.  Humor is a helpful emotional response that can buffer and relieve stress.4 Laughter has been shown to stimulate a physiological effect that decreases stress hormones such as serum cortisol and epinephrine.1 Humor has also been linked to reducing anxiety and tension.1 From a teaching perspective, humor can facilitate increased attention span, information retention as well as improve performance, problem-solving, team work, collaborative relationships, and coping strategies of students.5

The use of humor as a teaching tool must be harmonious with the learning experience. The overuse of humor can be perceived as a distraction and take students’ focus off of the material as they try to anticipate the next joke.   The primary focus needs to remain on educating, not entertaining.  Students do not want a stand-up comedian!  They want appropriate humor that is relevant, lightens the mood, and, most importantly, makes the information memorable.  Humor should not be disrespectful, insulting, or obnoxious as this may make students feel defensive or insulted.5  If used improperly, laughter can be a source of hurt. The goal is to laugh with each other, not at one another. When using humor, appropriate boundaries must be set and strictly followed.

Zach Stambor in his article entitled “The ‘ham it up’ how to”, gives the following tips for interjecting humor into teaching.6

“Make your syllabus funny - insert jocular descriptions in various sections of syllabus to make students read the syllabus.
Use real or hypothetical humorous situations - use TV clips, YouTube, or cartoons to enliven abstract concepts.
Ask punch line questions during question and answer sessions - set up a joke after asking a question.
Make questions and examples outrageous, ridiculous, or exaggerated - use patient cases with exaggerated situations.
Dramatize your material - develop skits or demonstrations with music.”
I think that the inclusion of some humor can maximize the learners’ experience. As a teacher, it is imperative that you put yourself in the shoes of the student when developing or incorporating humor into your instruction.  Humor should not only relate to the subject matter but be relevant to the audience as well.  This requires some extra effort but the more a student can relate and connect abstract concepts with familiar ones, the more likely the student will recall, retain, and apply the new material.  Most importantly, be yourself and have fun teaching!  Use humor as your instructional defibrillator — it can have beneficial psychologically and physiologically effects!

1. Stambor Z. How laughing leads to learning. American Psychological Association. June 2006, 37 (6): 62.
2. Garner RL. Humor in Pedagogy: How ha-ha can lead to aha!  College Teaching 2006, Vol. 54 (1); 177-180.
3. LoSchiavo F & Shatz M. Enhancing Online Instruction With Humor. Teaching Psychology, Vol. 32, No. 4;246-248.
4. Smith M & Segal J. Laughter is the best medicine. May 2013. Accessed October 8, 2013.
5. Chauvet S & Hofmeyer A. Humor as a facilitative style in problem-based learning enviroments for nursing students. Nurse Education Today. May 2007. Vol. 27 No. 4; 286-292.
6. Stambor Z. The ‘ham it up’ how to. American Psychological Association. June 2006 Vol 37, No. 6; 64.

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