Learning is No Laughing Matter… Or Is It?

Picture of StudyForge



Richard Bitgood


Brian Oger

Teacher’s Question: What ended in 1945?
Student’s Answer: 1944.

Teacher’s Question: Name the following shapes: ⭔, ◯, ▱, ◊, and ⬡
Student’s Answer: Liam, Olivia, Elijah, Emma, and Mia

Knock knock.
Who’s there?
Yer’courseismissing who?
Yer’courseismissing a joke or two!

Are you groaning yet? I hope so. Specifically because if you are groaning and rolling your eyes, then there is 92.3% chance1 that something else is happening as well: you’re probably smiling. Admit it, your lip just curled slightly when you were rolling your eyes at the extremely cheesy start to this article, even though the jokes were bad.

The Power of a Chuckle

My first year physics prof, Dr. Dan, was equally groan-worthy. Every single example in his lectures started with “Clik the gentoo penguin…” That poor little bird learned about gravity, friction, and centrifugal force the hard way. Clik slid on ice and sandpaper, fell from distances of 10 inches to 10 miles, and was spun around so fast his insides ended up on the outside. The funny thing was that Dr. Dan wasn’t very funny. His deadpan delivery barely elicited a groan. However, that twinkle in his eye every time something particularly unfortunate happened to our dear pet Clik broke down our defences and got us to smile. And that, over time, it built something very crucial into our learning experience: trust.

At StudyForge we are totally convinced that building relationships is the number one key to effective online, hybrid, and blended learning. That paradigm is central to every tool we create. And one of the most central aspects of any relationship is trust. This brings us back to why humour is such an important aspect of any effective learning design.

Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas point out in their book Humor, Seriously: Why Humor Is a Secret Weapon in Business and Life, that when we laugh with others our bodies release oxytocin, which has been tied to increasing trust between people. Other studies have shown that even smiling can increase oxytocin, so those groan-worthy, smile-inducing dad-jokes that began this article are helping you interact with the article differently. When we chuckle, laugh, or slightly crack a grin, we begin to feel that the content is more trustworthy, and we will actually retain more.

Seriously. We’re not joking about this.

Authentically Awkward

But what if you aren’t funny? That’s okay! I have learned a great secret in life that I have tried to pass on to my children: sometimes the best thing to do is to accept just how awkward and uncool you are. Dr. Dan wasn’t particularly funny, but his jokes endeared us to him nonetheless. The fact that he wasn’t funny and knew that his jokes were groan-worthy allowed him to bring humour into his lectures in an authentic way. He didn’t take himself seriously, and that set a fantastic example.

One morning my son, who was in second grade at the time, was so impressed with his ability to make a plastic cup stick to his face by breathing in and creating a suction effect. It was all fun and games until the next morning when he woke up in horror and embarrassment due to the appearance of a bright red chin-hickey. “Dad,” he sniffled through tears, “my friends are all going to laugh at me!”

I chuckled back at him, “Yep, they are!” This was not quite the response he was hoping for, and it caused quite a rift in our relationship. After I had sufficiently apologized and we both worked to calm down, we approached the problem of him attending school that day, given the unfortunate situation. At that moment I was able to share with him, “Son, your friends are going to laugh at you, and that’s okay. One of the great secrets in life is to be able to laugh at yourself along with them.” Nice speech, but he wasn’t immediately convinced. That said, after sharing a plethora of embarrassing moments of my own life, many of which he himself had witnessed, he was willing to give the whole concept a try.

When I picked him up from school that day, he was grinning from ear to ear, red chin and all. “Dad, it actually worked! My friends laughed, and I laughed and told them, ‘Yeah, it was pretty stupid of me,’ and I was embarrassed for a little bit, but then I was fine and we laughed some more every time they made a joke!”

I don’t think I would have been able to help him laugh at himself if I wasn’t willing to do the same. By being authentically awkward myself, I was able to set an example that it’s okay to be awkward sometimes. Perhaps this is why dads over the millenia have developed such an instinct for cracking bad jokes.

Places you can fit a joke

There are opportunities to be funny everywhere in education. Do a little dance while you are drawing on the white board; sneak a joke or a Far Side comic into an assignment that you’ve written; make at least one of your options on a multiple-choice test a joke. Here is an example from the intro quiz about the syllabus in a StudyForge English course:
If you have a question about a grade you recieved or how you should improve you should:

Okay, so maybe it’s not that funny, but right away the student knows that this course doesn’t take itself too seriously.

The thing about humour, though, is that it can cause harm if it is not done in the right way. Anything you say or do can and will be used against you in a performance review. So be sure that whenever you are using humour, you are appropriate, respectful, and professional. Skip the toilet humour, never put down or embarrass a student, and save the sarcasm for … never.

Make sure you are using humour to build up relationships, not tear them down.

What if I’m not funny?

“But” you object, “I’m just not funny!” That might be true. But hopefully as you have seen from my examples, neither am I, and Dr. Dan wasn’t either. However, having an awkward relationship with humour in and of itself can create smiles and increase trust. Don’t know a joke? Google knows a thousand dad jokes, so pick a particularly bad one to start your next lesson, weekly post, or Zoom session with. As long as you don’t take yourself too seriously, you will strengthen your relationship, create trust, and set a good example of humility.

Learning is serious business, so make sure your next lesson makes someone laugh.


164% of statistics in online articles are completely made up, including both of these.

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