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  • Writer's pictureKathleen McCormack

Harnessing Humor to Enhance Cognition: A Mother–Son Science Experiment in Information Retention

Updated: 1 day ago


SXSW 2024 Retrospective by Kathleen McCormack

At ScribeConcepts, we’re passionate about innovative publishing solutions. This year, we attended the SXSW EDU Conference & Festival to seek creative ways to support the next wave of educational materials. Every session was buzzing with engagement, but Sarah Rose Siskind's talk “Science Comedy: Why It’s a Thing & How to Do It” stood out. She revealed that laughter is not a break from learning, but a bridge to it. 


Inspiration from SXSW EDU


Siskind, whose resume includes writing for the TV show StarTalk with Neil deGrasse Tyson, shared research-based evidence about the positive effects of blending humor and education. 

Siskind explained that comedy lowers anxiety and blood pressure. A simple smile or just the anticipation of something being funny lowers stress and contributes to a more comfortable classroom community. Laughter releases dopamine, a hormone that increases energy, interest, and motivation.


Teen brains tend to be more sensitive to dopamine, making humor especially effective with older students. 

Humor is often shared through storytelling. When an audience enjoys how information is presented, such as when listening to a comedic story, they tend to remember information longer and more accurately. Storytelling is shown to improve information retention by up to seven times. 


Siskind’s evidence that humor in the classroom puts students at ease and enhances information retention and comprehension was compelling and inspiring. Her insights on combining humor with education sparked an idea for a personal experiment for my 9-year-old son’s fourth-grade science fair project. We decided to test the idea that humor could enhance learning retention.


The Experiment of Information Retention


As stand-up comedy enthusiasts, my son and I saw an opportunity here. We wanted to leverage what Mom learned on her work trip to participate in the annual school science fair. My son decided to explore if humor could improve his information retention compared to the standard informative methods.

 

Our method involved creating two versions of an article on an unfamiliar topic—the development of reusable glue. One version was infused with humor and the other strictly informative. My son and his sister, a seventh grader, were the participants. After reading their respective articles, they answered identical questions to measure comprehension and retention. The results were mixed. My daughter scored higher than my son in the first round. 

 

Undeterred, we adjusted our approach. We created another set of articles on a new topic—an ancient fish species. We used AI to make one version even funnier and tailor the humor specifically for a fourth grader. My daughter received a drier version at a higher reading level. This time the results were clear—my son matched my daughter’s perfect score. When the humor was pronounced and matched the age group, comprehension increased.


Kathleen's son made a case for using humor to help with information retention. Here he holds his presentation board with his findings.

Implications for Education


Our small-scale experiment mirrors findings from broader research. In one study, researchers examined if TV programming could truly be educational. Seventy kids watched different versions of Sesame Street. Some versions had funny bits added at a slow pace, and others had them added at a fast pace. Some included no funny bits at all. The study showed that children who watched the versions with fast-paced humor retained more of the concepts.

 

A different study found that humor can help students expand their vocabulary and understand language better. Humor often involves a play on words or ideas, requiring students to think differently and more deeply about a concept.

 

In another study, researchers revealed how humor affects classroom relationships. The results showed that teachers who use humor are perceived by their students as more confident, intelligent, and effective. However, the humor has to be positive and relevant to have the desired effects on comprehension. Teasing or out-of-context jokes do not improve engagement or information retention.


ScribeConcepts is excited to explore how these playful strategies can revolutionize educational practices. Our curriculum developers will look for opportunities to infuse products with lightheartedness, playfulness, and whimsy. ScribeConcepts is committed to creating content that resonates, educates, and delights.

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