Home > Practitioner's Corner > Using Humor to Enhance Climate and Promote Retention

Using Humor to Enhance Climate and Promote Retention

Humor has many benefits when used frequently and appropriately in the classroom and other school settings.

Physiological Benefits

  • Provides More Oxygen. Brain cells need oxygen and glucose for fuel. When we laugh, we get more oxygen into the bloodstream, so the brain is better fueled.
  • Causes an Endorphin Surge. Laughter causes the release of endorphins in the blood. Endorphins are the body’s natural painkillers, and they also give the person a feeling of euphoria. In other words, the person enjoys the moment in body as well as in mind. Endorphins also stimulate the brain’s frontal lobes, thereby increasing the degree of focus and amount of attention time.
  • Moderates Body Functions. Scientists have found that humor decreases stress, modulates pain, decreases blood pressure, relaxes muscle tension, and boosts immune defenses. These are all desirable outcomes.

Psychological, Sociological, and Educational Benefits

  • Gets Attention. The first thing a teacher has to do when starting a lesson is to get the students’ attention or focus. Because the normal human brain loves to laugh, starting with a humorous tale (such as a joke, pun, or story) gets the learner’s attention. Self-deprecating humor (“You won’t believe what happened to me this weekend”) is particularly effective with teens.
  • Creates a Positive Climate. Students are going to be together in a classroom for about  180 days. We need to find ways to help this increasingly diverse student population get along. When people laugh together, they bond and a community spirit emerges—all positive forces for a climate conducive to learning.
  • Increases Retention and Recall. We know that emotions enhance retention, so the positive feelings that result from laughter increase the probability that students will remember what they learned and be able to recall it later.
  • Improves Everyone’s Mental Health. Schools and all their occupants are under more stress than ever. Taking time to laugh can relieve that stress and give the staff and students better mental attitude with which to accomplish their tasks. Let’s take our work seriously but our-selves lightly.
  • Provides an Effective Discipline Tool. Good-natured humor (not teasing or sarcasm) can be an effective way of reminding students of the rules without raising tension in the classroom. Laughter also dampens hostility and aggression. Teachers who use appropriate humor are more likable, and students have a more positive feeling toward them. Discipline problems, therefore, are less likely to occur.
  • Using Humor as Part of Lessons. Humor should not be limited to an opening joke or story. Because of its value as an attention-getter and retention strategy, look for ways to use humor within the context of the learning objective. Several books on the market give many helpful suggestions on how to get students to use humor in lessons.Administrators and Humor. Administrators also need to remember the value of humor in their relationships with staff, students, and parents. As leaders, they set the example. In meetings and other settings, they can show that humor and laughter are acceptable in schools and classrooms.

Some Barriers to Humor in Classrooms

  • “I’m Not Funny.” Some teachers want to use humor in the classroom but don’t perceive themselves as jokesters. They’ll say, “I’m just not funny” or “I can’t tell a joke.” But the teacher doesn’t have to be funny, just the material—and there’s plenty of it. Books on humor are available in local stores, and don’t forget that students themselves often provide humor by their responses in class and answers on tests. Be certain that you use this material appro-priately, avoiding teasing or sarcasm.
  • “Students Won’t Enjoy It.” Secondary teachers, particularly, believe that students won’t find humor in corny jokes or that they are too sophisticated to laugh. But everyone likes to laugh (or groan) at humor. I suggest starting each class period with humor for three weeks, then stopping. I’m certain that students will say, “Hey, where’s the joke?”—evidence that they were listening.
  • “It Takes Too Much Time.” This is a common concern. Secondary teachers often feel so pres-sured to cover curriculum material that they are reluctant to give time to what may seem like a frivolous activity. On the other hand, humor is an efficient as well as effective way to gain students’ attention and improve retention of learning. It really is a useful investment of time.

Avoiding Sarcasm. All of the wonderful benefits mentioned above are the result of using wholesome humor that everyone can enjoy, and not sarcasm, which is inevitably destructive to someone. (Did you know that the word sarcasm comes from the Greek, meaning “to bite flesh”?) Some well-intentioned teachers say, “Oh, I know my students very well, so they can take sarcasm.” More than ever, today’s students are coming to school looking for emotional support. Sarcasm is one of the factors that can undermine that support and turn students against their peers, the teacher, and the school. When a student who is the object of sarcasm smiles, you really do not know if the student thinks the comment is humorous or is, instead, plotting revenge. Besides, there are plenty of sources of good classroom humor without sarcasm. For a deeper look at the research on the effects of humor on the body and brain, see Cardoso (2000), Martin (2007), and Schmidt (2002).


Cardoso, S. H. (2000, Fall). Our ancient laughing brain. Cerebrum, 2, 15–30.

Martin, R. A. (2007). The psychology of humor: An integrative approach. New York: Academic Press.

Schmidt, S. R. (2002). The humour effect: Differential processing and privileged retrieval. Memory, 10, 127–138.

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