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Referencing Funny: Strategies for Retention with Humor & Education

By: David Tarvin, Ph.D., Communication Instructor Texas A&M University

I load the lecture that projects a flock of geese in the V-formation on the screen. Before I begin my first lecture of the semester on leader-follower dynamics, I strike my best Vanna White pose and say in a baby voice, “Look at all those chickens!”

The classroom erupts in laughter. If you’re confused as to why, it’s okay, I would be too less than a year ago. But the students laugh if they get the reference and it bonds them with other students who also understand. We have something in common. It also breaks tensions—did our professor just reference a Vine video?

Building community and being able to destress are skills every student needs to successfully continue and finish their education. Using humor in the classroom can help develop these skills and help with the retention of students.

Retention has two commonly used meanings: first, to learn and retain information; and, second, to continue education year-to-year. The research on humor and the retention of information is varied and conflicting. Anecdotally, I have witnessed students retain information because of humor. I have seen students write out humorous examples I used in class on their exams to successfully recall information to answer the questions. While many studies back my own experiences, many other studies indicate there is little empirical evidence that humor helps retention-learning (Banas, Dunbar, Rodriguez, & Liu, 2011).

Regarding the second definition—encouraging students to continue and complete their education—evidence supports humor as an effective strategy for retention of students.

In a 2017 ACT Research Report, King and Ndum found that three psychosocial factors were statistically significant indicators of second-to-third year college retention: academic discipline, commitment to college, and social connections (p. 3). Allen, Robbins, Casillas, and Oh (2008) found that college commitment and social connectedness had direct effects on third-year retention rates as well (p. 660).

Humor can play an important role in developing these psychosocial factors. Banas et al., (2011) provides a review of more than 40 years of scholarship on the role of humor in instructional communication. Their review found humor serves a variety of positive functions beyond providing amusement, including increasing group cohesion and helping individuals cope with stress (p. 118).

In order for humor to impact learning, students have to relate to the humor and understand how it connects to the message. If they don’t, they experience confusion, which can lead to isolation and disengagement. Therefore, the humor must be strategic when used in the classroom. Humor is culturally-dependent. What works in one culture may not work in another; what works in one classroom may not work in another classroom.

Banas et al., provide four strategies for maximizing the positive effects of humor:

1. Only use humor you are comfortable with

2. Only use appropriate context-related humor

3. Only use appropriate age-related humor

4. Use humor to illustrate a point, and then paraphrase material

Across all of these strategies, culturally-relevant humor includes not just age, but geographic location, religion, and more. Even within the United States, humor is culturally-dependent. What works on the East Coast may not work in the South. To be safe, stay in the realm of affiliative humor, which has no targets. In The United States of Laughter (2016), Andrew Tarvin (humor engineer and also my brother) traveled all fifty states and discovered that what makes people laugh may be different, but that we all laugh is universal.

Some educators are natural entertainers and others are not. For those of you who don’t fancy yourself the next Ellen DeGeneres, referencing humor can still benefit the classroom greatly.

One way to reference humor is to insert humorous clips into lectures that are related to course material. Many students talked about Tik Tok videos and old Vine videos at the start of last semester. I didn’t know what either of those things meant. I did some homework: They are short videos people post online that are oftentimes funny and ridiculous.

When I discussed U.S./Mexican trade agreements in my intercultural communication course, I brought in an avocado and said, “It’s an avocado, thanks.” My students exploded with laughter. It referenced a Vine video. It also helped spark our conversation about the role of the drug cartels in Mexico and their influence on avocado exports to the U.S.

Ask your students at the beginning of each term what is relevant to them. By the end of the semester, you’ll be surprised at just how much they retain.


Allen, J. Robbins, S. B., Casillas, A., & Oh, I. (2008). Third-year college retention and transfer: Effects on academic performance, motivation, and social connectedness. Research in Higher Education, 49(7), 647-664.

Banas, J. A., Dunbar, N., Rodriguez, D., & Liu, S. (2011). A review of humor in educational settings: Four decades of research. Communication Education, 60(1), 115-144.

King, D. R., & Ndum, E. (2017). Can psychosocial factors predict first-to-second year college retention above and beyond standard variables? A mixed effects multinomial regression analysis. ACT Research Report, 11, 1-21.

Tarvin, A. J. (2017). The United States of Laughter: One comedian’s journey through all 50 states. AJTI, Chicago, IL.

About the Author:

Dave Tarvin, Ph.D., lectures in the Communication Department at Texas A&M University and teaches undergraduate courses in intercultural communication, rhetoric, and humor. Dave’s academic interests focus on high-impact practices that enhance the undergraduate experience. To that end, he builds community through applied improvisation and uses humor in lectures to make his classes engaging, entertaining, and educational. He developed an upper-level undergraduate course investigating humor as a rhetorical strategy that asks the question: when and where is humor persuasive? In this course students learn and explore a history of comedy, humor in social movements, and humor in politics. Dave was a keynote speaker at the AATH Conference in 2019, where he presented a toolkit for using humor in the classroom.


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