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How Humour Can Make Lectures More Engaging

The university experience, at times, is undoubtedly quite stressful. However, research by Vienna University of Economics and Business (WU Institute) finds that humour can improve student performance.
The university experience is, at times, stressful. However, research by Vienna University of Economics and Business (WU Institute) finds that humour can improve student performance
  • Humour can be an effective learning method as it can boost critical thinking and creativity within students, finds new research
  • The researchers asked students to create comedy scripts on relevant societal issues, to examine how it effects their performance.
  • Comedy can also help more introverted students with their communication skills. This helps to create a healthy environment for education.

Let me give you the general university experience for many, many students… The alarm goes off at 8:00 am, it’s likely snoozed in the desire to gain a few more minutes sleep after a late night and, and before they know it, the student has 10 minutes to get to a 9am lecture.

Luckily their lecturer has likely accounted for any late arrivals and hasn’t quite started proceedings yet. What a relief. The stressful part of the morning is over – for the student at least.

However, take a moment to spare a thought for the lecturer, who must now effectively engage an audience of tired, disengaged and slightly disorganised students in learning.

Adding to this a growing preference for flexibility in learning, where students can either choose to access lectures online at a time that suits them better or re-visit recordings of previously attended classes a later date, the pressure is off for the students in the lecture halls. Whilst they are physically present, they can afford to turn their minds to other things – another assignment perhaps, exam prep or even a social matter,

When it comes to creating and sustaining engagement in the classroom, lecturers have a tall order on their hands. But help is at hand. Research shows there are some effective tools they can employ to better connect with their students.

The Use of Humour in Higher Education

Humour can be an extremely effective learning method in lecture halls and seminar classrooms, finds new research conducted by Vienna University of Economics and Business (WU Institute). According to leader of the study, André Martinuzzi, an Associate Professor of Managing Sustainability, incorporating a simple joke or two in lectures can help them become more memorable and has been proven to promote critical thinking and creative thinking within students.

To explore this idea, the researchers asked students to create comedy scripts on course-relevant topics (which sounds like it’d be great fun to be honest!). In doing so they discovered that students were able to remember far more information from their lecturers. Not only that, but their enjoyment of the topic was also enhanced through the exercise.

Assistant Professor at the University of Missouri, Christine Jie Li, who also worked on the study, believes that, as well as making subjects more enjoyable, bringing humour into the classroom can help to ease frazzled minds. “Humour also can create a positive learning atmosphere by mitigating stress students may feel about anxiety-inducing topics, such as climate change or biodiversity loss,” she explains.

Interestingly, the study also revealed that young people value late-night comedic panel and talk shows as a relevant, reliable source of information regarding what’s happening in the world around them.

After all, from British stalwarts such as Have I Got News For You, to the increasingly popular Daily Show in the US, comedy has long been used to tackle tricky topics and stir debate and discussion around the news of the day. For a younger generation, comedians like Russell Howard has mastered covering hard-hitting news topics on his shows “Russell Howard’s Good News” and “The Russell Howard Hour”, respectively to great success.

Keeping this in mind, bridging the gap between academics and comedy makes a good deal of sense when it comes to securing engagement from an audience – especially when the topic is either difficult to grasp or, as Professor Li indicated, risks causing a degree or stress to students.

So, how can lecturers implement humour into their lectures?

Simply waking up one day and deciding to become the next Jon Stewart or Trevor Noah is, quite frankly, not possible. But after applying yourself and learning the basics of humour is certainly within reach.

Professor Martinuzzi explains; “Humour is a craft, rather than a talent or a personality trait. That is why it is essential that students realise that humour, as with any craft, requires practice and time.”

What are the basics of humour, you may ask? Well, the study suggests there are four main components:

  • Humour requires an element of surprise, and all good jokes need a good lead-up: A surprising punchline can be developed through specific techniques, such as exaggerations, a twist in a line of argumentation, or an unexpected link between two associations
  • Humour must be insightful carrying a greater narrative: A punchline can be revealing, unexpected, or exaggerated, but it should contain a message or the realisation of a deeper truth
  • Humour almost always has a target in mind and is understood as criticism that is presented as entertainment: People enjoy laughing together about something or someone (but rarely about themselves), and they experience a feeling of group cohesion, superiority, and sometimes permission to misbehave. Therefore, it should always be clear what or who the target is and why it deserves to be attacked
  • Humour needs to be understood: A requirement for effective parody and exaggeration is that the audience is familiar with the parodied subject. Therefore, punchlines often refer to pop culture, world politics, or stereotypes, although such references risk being overly simplified or reinforcing prejudice

The study also showcased the positive impact humour had on boosting inclusion in the classroom. The use of humour enabled introverted students to improve their pitching and communication skills with their peers, which will undoubtedly be a great asset as they face the prospect of putting themselves forward in their later careers.

So, if humour is showing the capacity to aid students on multiple fronts like this, why not incorporate this into your teaching?

Do you think adding a humour module to teacher-training would be a good move, comment below what you think?

By, Plamedi Mbungu

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