When teachers use verbal and nonverbal messages to elicit laughter and smiling from students, they employ a teaching strategy labeled instructional humor. Classic and contemporary scholarship on this topic has shed light on the benefits of teacher humor, how teacher humor relates to student learning, challenges of studying the relationship between humor and learning, and different types of teacher humor. Instructional communication researchers recognize teacher humor as an important type of immediacy behavior often used to reduce psychological distance between students and teachers and facilitate student learning.
There are a number of benefits connected to the use of humor in the classroom. For example, use of teacher humor can improve the student–teacher relationship by reducing student tension and anxiety and creating more favorable impressions of teachers. Not surprisingly, award-winning teachers use moderate as opposed to excessive amounts of humor in their lectures. Also, college students are more likely to engage in communication outside of the classroom setting with professors who use humor as part of their regular teaching style. The most extensively studied advantage of teacher humor has been its connection to student learning. One explanation for the relationship between humor and learning is the attention-gaining function of humor originally advanced by Ziv (1979). When teachers insert humor into their lectures, students express more interest in the material and are able to maintain their attention for longer time periods than when humor is not used. Additionally, students appear to have an easier time recalling course material later when it is connected to some type of humorous content.
Another explanation for the relationship between teachers’ use of humor and student learning is that humor is a type of immediacy behavior that helps gain the students’ attention and improve the student–teacher relationship. Immediate teachers enact verbal and nonverbal behaviors strategically to reduce physical and psychological distance between themselves and their students. For example, highly immediate teachers will maintain eye contact, use appropriate gestures, and provide appropriate self-disclosures throughout their lectures.
Research on teacher immediacy has provided almost unequivocal support for the relationship between teacher immediacy and student learning. Instructional researchers note that highly immediate teachers are 63 percent more likely to use humor than teachers low in immediacy (Gorham & Christophel 1990). Highly immediate teachers are also seven times more likely than low immediacy teachers to use noticeable humor such as physical and vocal types. Thus, immediate teachers are able to use humor as a means of establishing relationships with their students and simultaneously affecting arousal, retention, and learning in the classroom (Gorham & Christophel 1990).
Results from the humor (teacher)–learning (student) investigations conducted over the years have been quite mixed. Ziv (1988) examined 18 studies that tested the humor– learning relationship and identified 11 that found either a direct or indirect relationship between humor and learning and 7 that failed to identify any significant relationship. One explanation for the failed relationship between humor and learning was the short length of some of the studies. In several studies, the length of time individuals were exposed to humorous stimuli may have been too short (e.g., 10 minutes) to affect students’ ability to retain information. Another important methodological concern expressed by Ziv and others was the extent to which the humorous stimuli were actually perceived as funny by the study participants. If the humorous material was not perceived as funny, participants may not have been aroused enough to pay attention to the material in the humor condition. Differences in earlier study results may be best explained by examining how studies were conducted as well as how humor was operationalized.
In an effort to sort out why teacher humor may not always affect student learning, researchers began to develop detailed explanations of the different types of humor used in the classroom. Bryant et al. (1980) asked students to record and later analyze their professors’ use of humor. The researchers identified six different categories of teacher humor, which they labeled jokes, riddles, puns, funny stories, humorous comments, and an “other” category. The researchers also found that male teachers who used humor were evaluated more favorably than female teachers. Gorham and Christophel (1990) expanded on the Bryant study and found 13 different categories of teacher humor. Examples of teacher humor included, among others, brief tendentious comment directed at a specific student, the class as a whole, or the university, personal anecdotes related or unrelated to the subject matter, and physical or vocal comedy. Gorham did not find any differences in student evaluations of male and female teachers who used humor.
While Gorham and Christophel were able to expand on the types of humor teachers typically use in the classroom, their research did not distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate types. Wanzer and her colleagues asked students to generate examples of appropriate and inappropriate types of teacher humor (Wanzer et al. 2006). From this study, four categories and 25 sub-categories of appropriate teacher humor emerged. The four categories of appropriate teacher humor were related humor, unrelated humor, self-disparaging humor, and unintentional/unplanned humor. There were four categories and 27 sub-categories of inappropriate teacher humor identified. The four categories of inappropriate humor were offensive humor, disparaging humor targeting students, disparaging humor targeting others, and self-disparaging humor.
Disposition theory explains why students perceived teachers’ use of disparaging humor as inappropriate for the classroom. According to disposition theory, individuals determine whether messages are humorous by considering who is targeted in the humor attempt. Humorous messages that target liked or similar others are typically not perceived as funny by recipients. Wanzer et al. (2006) suggested that teachers use neither humor that disparages the groups that students belong to nor the students themselves.
Now that researchers have a better understanding of the types of humor considered appropriate for the classroom, they can begin to investigate the impact of these types on student attendance, learning, motivation, and quality of the student–teacher relationship.
- Bryant, J., Crane, J. S., Comisky, P. W., & Zillmann, D. (1980). Relationship between college teachers’ use of humor in the classroom and students’ evaluations of their teachers. Journal of Educational Psychology, 72, 511–519.
- Gorham, J., & Christophel, D. M. (1990). The relationship of teachers’ use of humor in the classroom to immediacy and student learning. Communication Education, 39, 46–62.
- Wanzer, M. B. (2002). Use of humor in the classroom: The good, the bad, and the not-so-funny things that teachers say and do. In J. L. Chesebro & J. C. McCroskey (eds.), Communication for teachers. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon, pp. 116–125.
- Wanzer, M. B., Frymier, A. B., Wojtaszczyk, A., & Smith, T. (2006). Appropriate and inappropriate uses of humor by teachers. Communication Education, 55, 178–196.
- Ziv, A. (1979). L’humour en éducation: Approche psychologique. Paris: Editions ESF.
- Ziv, A. (1988). Teaching and learning with humor: Experiment and replication. Journal of Experimental Education, 57, 5–15.
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