When in doubt, crack open a funny one.

Shadow joke.

Image credits Hans Braxmeier.

Science classrooms stand to benefit from humor, new research suggests. This first-of-its-kind study revealed that humor can have a positive impact on students’ ability to learn, but also a negative one if wielded improperly. Luckily, the team also identified which kind of jokes go over smoothly and which risk offending students.

The ‘Ha-ha’ factor

Humor can help lighten the mood and help students establish rapport with their instructors. The study, penned by researchers from the Arizona State University’s School of Life Sciences, found that students appreciate when instructors tell jokes in science class. Female and male students, however, differ on what topics they find funny or offensive.

The team surveyed students from 25 college science courses on their perceptions of instructor humor. Out of the total of 1,637 respondents, 99% said they appreciate instructor humor and feel it improves the overall experience of college. Many also said it helps decrease stress, enhance the relationship between students and the instructor, and remind them what was taught in class.

It came as a surprise, the team admits.

“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,” said Sara Brownell, associate professor in the school and senior author of the paper.

“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.”

With great humor, however, also comes great chance to offend somebody.

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The good news is that lukewarm jokes — those that students don’t actually find funny — won’t do any damage; such jokes don’t change the students’ attention to course content or their relationship with the instructor, the team reports. The bad news is that if an instructor tells a joke that students find both unfunny and offensive, they can seem less relatable and make students pay less attention, according to over 40% of respondents. The effect seems to be more pronounced on female students, the team adds.

As a group, male and female students will also laugh at different jokes — and they’ll be offended by different jokes, too. In the survey, science students were presented with a list of hypothetical topics that a professor could joke about and asked to rate how they feel about each.

Male students were more likely to find jokes told by the instructor about gender, sexual orientation, religious identity, and race funny. Female students were more likely to find these same hypotheticals offensive. Both, however, found jokes about science, college, and television to be palatable.

“There were 23 subjects that males were more likely than females to report that they might find funny, including all 14 subjects related to social identities,” the paper reads. “However, there was only one subject, food puns, that females were more likely than males to report that they might find funny

“More and more studies are starting to paint a picture that the classroom environment is really important for student learning,” Brownell explains. “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 authors suggest that instructors weave humor into their course, but that they pay attention to what kind of jokes they crack. “Is it a joke about cute animals? Probably OK.”, says co-author Katelyn Cooper”.A pun about science? Probably OK.”

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The study is the product of a collaboration between the team and 16 students (graduate and undergraduates) enrolled in a class focusing on biology education research. The entire class worked on the project for one semester, acting as investigators — formulating the initial research idea, collecting and analyzing data, and editing the final manuscript.

The paper “To be funny or not to be funny: Gender differences in student perceptions of instructor humor in college science courses” has been published in the journal PLOS ONE.

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