"We know students taking online courses often view them as very distant and sometimes boring and impersonal, so we thought about the idea of trying to incorporate humor into online instruction with the idea of enhancing it," said Shatz, a professor of psychology at Ohio University's Zanesville campus who also teaches a popular humor-writing course.
The study, which also will be published in Teaching of Psychology, took an existing online general psychology course and systematically enhanced it with the addition of humor in the form of self-deprecating jokes, cartoons and top ten lists all related to the subject matter. Forty-four students were then randomly assigned to either the traditional section or the humor-enhanced section, and the researchers assessed their academic performance and level of participation.
The team used the online system Blackboard to tally the number of times students logged on and participated in the discussion boards. At the end, they also asked students to fill out surveys rating their overall enjoyment of the course.
The researchers found that students in the humor-enhanced section were more likely to post comments on discussion boards. They also seemed to enjoy the course more, Shatz said.
"We did not expect to find differences in performance and we did not find differences in performance, because our view is that humor itself is not some learning potion," he said. "Humor is more of a social lubricant. It can facilitate interactions, and that is exactly what we found."
The most important finding, he added, is that humor can take a situation such as online learning, which is often viewed as sterile and remote, and add a sense of personal flavor to the experience. He also has a word of advice to professors who might be afraid to experiment with the use of humor in their classrooms even if they don't consider themselves funny. Sometimes just the attempt at humor is enough.
"Teachers don't need to be comedians," said Shatz, who is currently co-writing the second edition of Comedy Writing Secrets with former Ohio University journalism professor Mel Helitzer. "Our job is not to make students laugh. Our job is to help them learn, and if humor can make the learning process more enjoyable, then I think everybody benefits as the result of it."
Professors rarely have much to lose, since students already have low expectations of them going into a class, he argued. "They expect us to be boring and dull. We don't have to be funny, but the attempt at being funny tells students that we're trying to make the course more interesting. I think it's just the effort alone that students truly appreciate," he said.
Humor alone cannot save a poorly planned class, however, and oftentimes, too much humor can work against student learning. "If students giggle or give me the pity laugh, that's good, because at least it tells them I'm trying," he said. "(But) if I make my students laugh too hard, they're going to remember my story, and not the material."
Written by Elizabeth Weinstein.