No laughing matter? Classroom humour treads a fine line

Funny jokes improve class cohesion and dud gags do no harm, study finds – but offensive quips can alienate learners

August 24, 2018
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Double act: humour in the classroom can make lessons less boring but the wrong type of jokes can backfire

Humour can be a double-edged sword when it comes to engaging women in science, US research suggests.

A study by Arizona State University has found that academics’ jokes help alleviate feelings of alienation in science classes – feelings that disproportionately affect female students.

But the wrong type of humour can backfire, undermining a sense of belonging in class – particularly among women, who tend to be quicker to take offence than men.

“Jokes that are offensive can make them feel even more like they don’t fit in,” said senior author Sara Brownell, a neuroscientist turned education researcher. “If students don’t feel like they belong, they are less likely to persist in science.”

While humour in education has been researched for decades, the Arizona study is thought to be the first to examine the phenomenon specifically in university science settings – and the first not to assume that students find their instructors’ jokes funny.

The research, which was designed and executed by undergraduates, quizzed more than 1,600 students from 25 science courses on their perceptions of humour in the classroom. An overwhelming 99 per cent approved, with many saying that it made classes more fun and less boring.

Some said it lightened the mood, alleviated anxiety, boosted attention or made academics more approachable, according to a paper in Plos One.

Further examination revealed that these benefits only flowed if students appreciated the humour. But jokes that fell flat had little negative effect, as long as they were not offensive.

However, distasteful humour undermined students’ sense of belonging and academics’ air of relatability. And while male and female students tended to be affected equally by jokes they found objectionable, women turned out to be far more easily offended.

The researchers compiled a list of 34 potential humour subjects, ranging from politics, relationships and social identity to sex, bodily functions and food puns. In all cases, women proved as ready to take offence as men – and usually more ready.

Jokes about social identity – such as age, weight, religion, ethnicity or sexual identity – were particularly likely to rub female students the wrong way.

Just three subjects – college, science and television – appeared to provide safe ground for horseplay. Most students said they would find jokes about these topics amusing, and very few said they might be offended.

The findings could cause academics to overthink their humour, delivering jokes that seem contrived and awkward. But Dr Brownell said she hoped that instructors would not back off from integrating humour into their classes. “We just want that humour to be funny, and not offensive.

“A lot of instructors have told us that this study made them think twice about a joke they had told in the past. We hope [it] will cause instructors to think twice about joking about content that may seem innocuous, like politics.

“Other instructors have said that they were reluctant to integrate humour into their classrooms, but this study made them feel more confident in telling a joke or two.” 

Dr Brownell said that while the research had relied on students reporting their perceptions accurately, the trends it identified had been strong. But she acknowledged that the findings might not apply outside the US.

“Humour is very dependent on culture,” she said. “Understanding how students in other countries are affected by humour – and what topics they find funny and offensive – would be a really interesting direction for future research.”

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