How Humor Can Help You Learn

Find out why using humor in the classroom is an effective strategy to keep students engaged.

Can laughter change the way we learn? 

Whether you are tackling a new program at work, taking a calculus class, or picking up a new hobby, laughter could be the key ingredient to vastly improve your measure of success.

According to a study shared by the American Psychology Association, students are “more likely to recall a statistics lecture when it was interjected with jokes about relevant topics.” That’s right — students remember more when they laugh! And it turns out that laughter goes beyond increasing your memory. A study published in the Journal of Instructional Research shared that “student comprehension of material delivered with wit was increased over students whose instructors did not use humor.” Laughing can actually impact our comprehension levels and absorption of material. In addition to increasing our memory and comprehension, many teachers, including myself, have found that making students laugh increases interest in subjects and motivation to learn more.

The data is clear: if you laugh while you learn, you could reap some incredible results, but how does this work? 

Laughter lowers our stress levels and makes us more comfortable

The American Physiological Society has found that “humor stimulates multiple physiological systems that decrease levels of stress hormones, such as cortisol and epinephrine, and increase the activation of the mesolimbic dopaminergic reward system.” In other words, laughter helps lower stress. Dr. Ronald A. Berk seconds that in his book, Humor as an Instructional Defibrillator: “humor’s primary psychological role is as an emotional response or buffer to relieve physical stress.” By lowering tension, anxiety, and negative hormones often associated with school, students can more easily comprehend and retain new material. In this way, laughter helps our brains work better.

Researchers have also found that laughter helps when “forming relationships and strengthening human connections.” Finding the professor more approachable can also help students get better grades as they are more likely to reach out and ask questions. They also have more motivation for doing well in a funny professor’s class. 

Laughter helps broaden and deepen our understanding of subjects

Laughter helps us learn because of the emotional response in our brains and the connections we form, but there could be another piece of the puzzle as well. Dr. Berk suggests a witty teacher like himself “is using humor to enhance otherwise dull statistical methodology by tapping into students’ multiple intelligences and learning styles in a way that forces them to think in divergent and real-life ways.” Laughter helps you tap into more parts of your brain. Making connections between the new material you are learning and things that you already know about is incredibly helpful!

In James Kakalios’ book The Physics of Superheroes, he explains that he was a bit disappointed teaching physics at first. Students would always complain about how boring his lectures were and would tell him that they didn’t think physics had much to do with their real life or future careers. He decided to start talking about the force and mass of different superheroes. Suddenly, students were listening much better. He points out that unless they are planning on a career of spandex-wearing and world-saving, his lectures still don’t have any more to do with students’ real life and careers. But it doesn’t matter. I find superheroes fascinating and am way more interested in learning about the force of Superman landing than a ball hitting the ground. Connecting the material to other parts of your brain leads to deeper comprehension and retention of material, all while making class time more enjoyable! 

Laughter can be brought into all areas of learning

The verdict is out: laughing is a powerful tool to getting smarter. So when you’re scheduling classes next semester, consider scrolling through ratemyprofessors.com to hunt for the funny ones! If you’re not a student, you can still apply these studies to your life. For example, if I want to comprehend and retain more in other areas of my life, an easy step would be laughing there as well: laughing at CrossFit while I try to figure what a clean or a snatch is or laughing while learning a new computer program as I see all my mistakes with a dash of perspective. We can bring laughter to any area of learning and growth that we want to accelerate. 

Even if we don’t always have a choice which coach, boss, or instructor we will get, we can look for funny resources online or in books to help make the material come to life for us. Sometimes, when I am not feeling particularly funny before lecturing, I will look up memes that other people have made to share them with the class and get us in the right mood. It’s easy to do and helps cement material into students’ heads as well as my own. I’m not a stand-up comedian but working on developing a sense of humor has helped both my lectures go well and has helped my own personal studies flourish as well. 

So go out. Live. Laugh. Learn faster and better than ever before.

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