“Humor improves student performance by attracting and sustaining attention, reducing anxiety, enhancing participation, and increasing motivation.”Brandon M. Savage et al., Advances in Physiology Education 2017 (41:3)
This is a photo of sixth-grade me. I’d been sitting at the kitchen table puzzling over my pre-algebra textbook, which had a penchant for asking ridiculous (but supposedly relevant) questions and failing to answer my question, “WHY?”
WHY is a negative times a negative a positive? WHY is multiplying by a fraction’s reciprocal the same as dividing? WHY does cross-multiplying work?
After half an hour of reading the same problem over and over, I had become teary. My dad sat down to give me a hand, took one look at the word problem, and exclaimed: “Is Fred crazy? What’s he thinking cutting a rope into halves and quarters and then sevenths? He’s just making life harder for himself!” By then, I was laughing so hard I could barely breathe. Soon, we had figured out how to approach Fred’s problem. From then on, through homeschooling, our motto was “Laugh about math.”
It turns out this was a sound pedagogical approach (as my dad would know, given that he’s spent 30 years teaching college students). “Humor and laughter may not directly cause learning; however, humor creates an environment that promotes learning,” write the authors of a 2017 article for Advances in Physiology Education. “Evidence documents that appropriate humor, and humor that relates to course material, attracts and sustains attention and produces a more relaxed and productive learning environment. Humor also reduces anxiety, enhances participation, and increases motivation.”
My experience certainly backs this up. Some of my most memorable learning experiences—including in high school and college—are those where the class dissolved in laughter. This does not mean teachers should be expected to perform stand-up comedy, nor that every class should be as lighthearted as a sitcom. I was a history major; there are plenty of times when, given the nature of the subject matter, it would have been wildly inappropriate for class to be conducted in a humorous vein. Perhaps the best way to think about it is thus: Periodic laughter is an expression of the most productive kind of learning environment, one where students are engaged, where they feel comfortable with each other and with the instructor, and where learning is a process to be relished.