TEMPE, Ariz. — Everyone has had a certain teacher at some point who just loved squeezing in a few jokes to each and every lecture, while other instructors barely cracked a smile for months. In an effort to better understand the effects of teacher humor on pupils, an Arizona State University study found that 99% of science students appreciate a witty instructor. However, the data showed that young men and young women differ in what they consider funny or offensive.
All in all the research team concluded that an occasional joke by an teacher, especially in an intense class, can lighten the mood and lead to better student learning and understanding.
The study focused on students in science courses, which tend to be very rigorous and intense. A total of 1,637 students from 25 college science courses participated in the study, and 99% said they appreciate instructor humor because it improves their overall classroom experience. Many students also said that a teacher’s jokes can lower stress, improve students’ relationships with their instructor, and even help students remember what they were taught that day in class.
The researchers expected a majority to attribute positive classroom outcomes with instructor humor, but they were surprised by the 99% ratio.
“I went into [this study] thinking that maybe we shouldn’t be joking in the classroom, but I left the study thinking that instructors should use humor as a way to better connect with students,” says senior author and ASU associate professor Sara Brownell in a media release. “But, as might seem obvious, we need to be careful with what we’re joking about because we found the topics that instructors are joking about can have different effects on different students.”
But, what about unfunny or offensive jokes? The study found that when an instructor tells a joke that is unfunny and offensive, over 40% said it decreases their ability to pay attention in class and makes it harder for them to relate to their teacher. This effect was more prominent among female students taking part in the research.
On the other hand, if an instructor simply tells an unfunny joke, the students surveyed said it largely doesn’t influence their classroom experience, perception of the teacher, or quality of learning.
Finally, the research team also noted differences in joke tastes among men and women. Male students were found to be more likely to enjoy hypothetical jokes about gender, religious identity, sexual orientation, and race, but female students were more likely to find these topics offensive. There were three topics, though, that both genders were able to agree were fair game for jokes: science, the college experience, and television.
“More and more studies are starting to paint a picture that the classroom environment is really important for student learning,” Brownell concludes. “Science classrooms and the instructors teaching the science are typically described by students as boring, unapproachable and difficult. So, science instructors who try to be funny can create better learning environments, as long as they are not offensive.”
The study is published in the journal PLOS ONE.