The affective component of humor engages the limbic system, thereby enhancing both short- and long-term memory and increasing the learner’s willingness to apply knowledge and skills (Corbin, 2015; Leslie, 2015; Lund, 2015). Some believe the best time to deliver serious points to students when teaching is right after they laugh (Makewa et al., 2011). The expression of feelings, such as empathy and anger, can be more constructive when approached in a witty manner (Chiang, Lee, & Wang, 2016; James et al., 2012; Lund, 2015; Nesi, 2012). Both sides of the brain are actively engaged during laughter and the perception of humor. The right side of the brain involves reading and interpreting the visual, nonverbal information of humor, whereas the left side of the brain interprets the language nuances of humor. Novelty, imagination, and visualization help move information into long-term memory through the engagement of multiple brain cells firing simultaneously. However, there is still much research to be done about the neuroscience related to humor and the perceptions about what is humorous (Banas, Dunbar, Rodriguez, & Liu, 2011).
Types of Learners Humor is a type of playfulness that spans multiple ages and venues. Developmentally and intellectually appropriate humor can be employed with all levels of learners (Skilbeck, 2017). Classroom humor relevant to course content is more appreciated by the adult learner than is random humor. It also is necessary to be aware of students’ cultural backgrounds because words and concepts may have different meanings and be misperceived, or worse, be inappropriate to discuss (Allen, 2014; Corbin 2015; Ersanli & Cakir, 2017; Nesi, 2012; Seidman & Brown, 2015).
Studies have provided mixed reviews about students’ acceptance and appreciation of humor used by the teacher. Some studies have shown that gender impacts the acceptance and use of humor, as does the match between the educator’s and students’ sense of humor (Bolkan, Griffin, & Goodboy, 2018; Nesi, 2012; VanPraag, Stevens, & Van Houtte, 2017). The associations found between intellectual ability and sense of humor suggest that educators need a firm check on the cognitive status of their students when employing wit, or they risk offending rather than amusing them (Ersanli & Cakir, 2017). Student reaction to humor has been differentially related to the gender of the educator as well, with female educators eliciting less overall appreciation of their efforts to be humorous (Nesi, 2012).
Conditions for Learning Humor can be used judiciously throughout a class session or course and in all types of classroom situations: lecture, lab, fieldwork, and various course assignments. Mood can enhance or inhibit the reception of humor, making it imperative to read the class members accurately and create a positive and pleasant classroom experience. Positive and constructive humor can be used to put the learner and the teacher at ease with the subject matter (Allen, 2014; Berge, 2017; Corbin, 2015; Huss & Eastep, 2016; Nesi, 2012). Humorous activities, or icebreakers, that relate to the class session topic might begin a class. These activities can also be inserted at intervals to reaffirm the open, relaxed atmosphere that is most conducive to learning. Humor generated from course-content-related games can also create a fun learning environment and content retention. Tension relievers before exams are usually helpful. As long as the humor remains embedded in the content, learners will internalize the new knowledge; otherwise, the flow of the lesson can be lost or misdirected (Berge, 2017). Humor can be used to facilitate creativity and retention of material at any point in a lesson—from initial setup through final review (Seidman & Brown, 2015; Wortley & Dotson, 2016). Using minimally counterintuitive ideas increased recall and retention of new concepts. These ideas challenge the students’ current cognitive knowledge template about a topic by presenting an exaggerated or unexpected parallel idea related to topic content or knowledge application.
Relationship between class size and classroom size may impact the effective use of humor because laughter is likely to be greater in larger, more crowded classes than in smaller classes in larger rooms. Laughter, like yawning, is contagious, so once a large group is stimulated by laughter it may take time to bring them back to focus. A group leader (educator in this case) should not stop the laughter, but let it stop of its own accord. The laughter helps reduce anger and tension and may build cohesion and well-being—both of which are essential to productivity and learning.
Humor is a part of communication and not dependent on the natural comedic ability of an instructor. It is an attitude and permission for enjoyment of the educational process (Allen, 2014; Leslie, 2015; Lund, 2015; Nesi, 2012). It can be spontaneous or planned (Smith & Wortley, 2017; Wortley & Dotson, 2016). Students seem to enjoy some playful and restful thinking when, as the first author observed, she uses “knock, knock” or children’s joke books during breaks of intense cognitive, thinking, and problem-solving classes. Some authors recommend delivering the most important content or concept for learning just after a good laugh, when the mind is relaxed and open to new learning (Beckett, Sheppard, Rosene, & Whitlock, 2016). Essential to creating open communication and allowing humor within the classroom is the teacher’s nonverbal communication and voice tone because these can convey openness or constrict enjoyment of learning. If the teacher’s and class’s humor style do not mesh, then the use of humor in the learning process will not be
effective (Chiang, Lee & Wang, 2016; Lund, 2015; Van Praag, Stevens, & Van Houtte, 2017). It is important to understand your audience—which in this case is the class—and to know your own sense of humor and be willing to experiment with others (Lund, 2015).
Humor is not necessarily universally appropriate. Some studies found integrating humor into class content and testing did not improve learning outcomes, and many students indicated that humor distracted from their learning (Beckett et al., 2016; Bolkan, Griffin, & Goodboy, 2018). Humor with a strong linguistic base may also disadvantage international students (Ersanli & Cakir, 2017; Nesi, 2012). Likewise, as mentioned previously, any use of sarcasm was seen to be detrimental to learning (Berk, 2014; Corbin, 2015; Lund, 2015; Van Praag, Stevens, & Van Houtte, 2017).
Humor can be very useful in the enculturation of novices into your profession, especially when dealing with the elements of embarrassing intimacy and reality shocks that may occur in healthcare provision (Allen, 2014; Berge, 2017). A healthy sense of humor is related to being able to laugh at yourself and your life without degrading yourself (Huss & Eastep, 2016). Those who enter the health professions must be able to cope with adversity and be able to help others cope as well. The development of a healthy sense of humor, beginning in preservice classes and continuing through professional in-services, benefits everyone.
Resources As with any teaching strategy, the effective use of humor has to be learned and refined. Before using humor in teaching situations, educators may want to assess their own sense of humor using a humor profile such as the one developed by Richmond, Wrench, and Gorham (2001; see Appendix 11-1). The score obtained on the humor profile reflects your use of humor during communications. Completion of a humor profile is a preliminary step to learning your current facility with humorous content. Additional humor assessments worth considering are the Humor Styles Questionnaire (Martin, Puhlik-Doris, Larsen Gray, & Weir, 2003) and the Humor Climate Questionnaire (Cann, Watson, & Bridgewater, 2014).
Some ways to increase your use of humor include exposing yourself to and collecting humorous experiences, such as reading comics, sitcoms, and joke books; visiting comedy clubs; and even looking for the humor around yourself. This may include viewing the world through exaggeration or broad, silly perspectives. Using exaggeration is a method to clarify concepts—the contrast assists understanding. Incongruity is another technique for promoting humor in the classroom, which studies found aided retention and recall of concepts and application (Banas, Dunbar, Rodriguez, & Liu, 2011). One such example is comparing a stripper and a corporate CEO regaining work skills (see the Applied Example in BOX 11-1). Pinterest and YouTube are treasure troves of humorous situations waiting to be tapped by the healthcare professional looking for examples of exaggeration, incongruity, or basic fun. Listening and watching TED Talks is another way to develop a humorous style, repertoire, or skill set. Additionally, the use of props may also enhance humor within a lesson. Berk (2014) offers many examples for using humor in the classroom.
BOX 11-1 Tips for Using Humor in the Classroom
1. Create a casual (and safe) atmosphere 2. Smile; adopt a laugh-ready attitude 3. Relax, use open, nonverbal posture; increase interpersonal contact through eye-to-eye and face-to-face
contact 4. Remove social inhibitions; establish a nonjudgmental forum for discussion 5. Begin the class with a humorous example, cartoon, anecdote, or thought for the day 6. Use personal stories, anecdotes, current events related to class content 7. Plan frequent breaks in content for application, humorous commercials, or exaggerated examples; provide
humorous materials 8. Encourage give and take with students; laugh at yourself occasionally
Articles about infusing humor into online courses have suggested a number of techniques to promote a positive learning environment in the virtual classroom that mirror applications of humor in the regular classroom. Primary among these
techniques is the use of humor to project an authentic representation of the educator. The humor used, by necessity, is primarily linguistic, although cartoons are readily available (Nesi, 2012). Being humorous online requires more thought and finesse. As such, it requires extensive commitment, time, and effort as it needs to be planned, personalized to the students, and monitored for receptivity (Nesi, 2012; Smith & Wortley, 2017).
Web resources (available as of publication; web addresses may change)
1. Humor matters bibliography and resources: http://www.humormatters.com/bibindex.htm Learning the art of using humor: http://www.humorproject.com/
2. Sources for cartoon humor (some resources are paid services) Cartoons from the New Yorker magazine: http://www.cartoonbank.com
Single cartoons by Randy Glasbergen, often about business or family: http://www.glasbergen.com/
Variety of popular newspaper cartoon serials: http://www.gocomics.com/explore/comics
Popular magazines carry sections related to humor or laughter. 3. Print resources:
Print versions of cartoons (Far Side, For Better or Worse, Zits, Pickles, etc.), local newspapers, bookstores
Desk calendars such as “A Little Bit of Oy;” “The Far Side,” and “Charlie Brown”
Knock, knock joke books take humor across the lifespan and sophistication levels.
Cathcart, T., & Klein, D. (2007). Plato and a platypus walk into a bar: Understanding philosophy through jokes. New York, NY: Penguin Group.
Cathcart, T., & Klein, D. (2009). Heidegger and a hippo walk through those pearly gates: Using philosophy (and jokes!) to explore, life, death, the afterlife, and everything in between. New York, NY: Penguin Group.
Check the humor section of any brick and mortar or online bookstore.