Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Report #1: Humor and Learning

Last week I was out of the office for a few days. I traveled to San Francisco. 

Proof: here are some seals.

Seals, however, aren't the point. I traveled on Delta Airlines. This detail is pretty unremarkable, except for the fact that I was thinking about their airline safety video nearly a week after I disembarked from the plane. It was really funny. I encourage you to watch it yourself. 

Air travel is not new to me, so there's really no way to gauge how effective this video is in communicating everything I already know. What it did do, however, was make me pay attention. There's even an alternate version that has changed a few fun details to keep frequent flyers amused. The fact that I was thinking about the video yesterday was actually remarkable. I remembered it for some reason. And that reason is that it was funny. It was different. 

My next thought was (of course) how does this apply to learning, especially for adults? One instructor I work with states, in his intro video, that he uses humor intentionally because it's linked with retention. I did a web search [humor and retention] to find articles or studies on this, and there is a lot out there. Here are a few conclusions, and the links to these studies:

In a nutshell, all of the studies I skimmed had positive things to say about humor - lectures are more engaging interesting, etc. A great example I came across was how to use humor to make statistics more engaging. I don't, however, see definitive proof that humor directly affects test or assessment scores.

I came across this article in JOLT that focuses on the use of humor in the online class that basically says humor creates a positive learning environment. In my experience this has been absolutely true. It's hard to say how much of a role humor plays, however, because those particular instructors are usually extremely involved and passionate about teaching, as well.

I work with three instructors in particular who have fantastic senses of humor and each of them is responsive, proactive, and  really show they care by making themselves available and approachable. They all have completely different styles of humor. One is goofy, one is dry, and one is pretty weird, and all this comes through in lectures and discussion interactions. Looking at their individual cases, I would say that humor absolutely adds to the value of the course. What happens, however, when you have an instructor and that's not their style? I know another instructor who is very straightforward but whose lectures are very meaningful and useful - this instructor is also very well liked and valued by students (and the course gets excellent reviews).

Where does this leave humor? In my very light and non-scientific analysis, I'd say don't be afraid of it, especially in an online course. It's very humanizing, especially if it's you. As far as humor and retention goes, my gut says that if you can teach a concept in a straightforward way and then surprise students with a memorable joke, then that's helping, at least in the short term. If I were teaching a course I would absolutely use humor where it was appropriate. When I get a PowerPoint narration from an instructor and there are relevant jokes or entertaining stories involved that add color to the concepts, I'm immediately enthusiastic and I get an impression that this instructor is going to be good. And when I say good, I mean I'm not going to have to worry about students wondering why this instructor dropped off the face of the earth. So if it's that kind of an indicator, there's some correlation between humor and good instruction.

Back to Delta: If I had a straightforward flight safety video, I probably would have ignored it because I already know the information. Maybe, however, I only think  I know the information. The humorous video would be a great way to call out new information that I'd miss otherwise.

Thanks for reading. Here's a video of some entertaining physics:

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