We all know that they do it, but what do students laugh about when learning science together? Although research has shown that students do use humor when they learn science, the role of humor in science education has received little attention. In this study, undergraduate students’ laughter during collaborative work in physics has been investigated. In order to do this, a framework inspired by conversation analysis has been used. Empirical data was drawn from two video-recorded sessions in which first-year engineering students solved physics problems together. The analysis revealed that the students’ use of humor was almost exclusively related to physics. Five themes identified summarize the role of humor in the group discussions: Something is obvious, Something is difficult, Something said might be wrong, Something is absurd, and Something said is not within informal norms.
This study shows that humor may contribute not only to a good working atmosphere and thereby to the students’ learning but also how humor interrelates with both disciplinary culture of physics and its epistemology. The students do not only create and re-create humor that facilitates their social interactions, but through humor they constitute local norms of science and engage with the disciplinary discourse.
This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price includes VAT for USA
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
This is the net price. Taxes to be calculated in checkout.
For further details about the project Physics Learning in Groups, see Berge (2011)
Frilägga means to draw a force diagram, it is a Swedish term that does not have any equivalence in English
Two of Lemke’s stylistic norms, the avoidance of personification and personalities (4 and 7), were difficult to separate and were coded together in this analysis.
Airey, J. (2009). Science, language, and literacy: Case studies of learning in Swedish university physics. Uppsala: Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis.
Airey, J., & Linder, C. (2009). A disciplinary discourse perspective on university science learning: achieving fluency in a critical constellation of modes. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 46(1), 27–49. doi:10.1002/Tea.20265.
Anderhag, P., Hamza, K. M., & Wickman, P. O. (2014). What can a teacher do to support students’ interest in science? A study of the constitution of taste in a science classroom. Research in Science Education, 1–36. doi:10.1007/s11165-014-9448-4.
Arnold, J. (2012). Science students’ classroom discourse: Tasha’s umwelt. Research in Science Education, 42(2), 233–259. doi:10.1007/s11165-010-9195-0.
Berge, M. (2011). Group work and physics: characteristics, learning possibilities and patterns of interaction. Göteborg: Chalmers University of Technology.
Berge, M., & Danielsson, A. T. (2013). Characterising learning interactions: A study of university students solving physics problems in groups. Research in Science Education, 43(3), 1177–1196. doi:10.1007/s11165-012-9307-0.
Berland, L. K., & Hammer, D. (2012). Framing for scientific argumentation. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 49(1), 68–94. doi:10.1002/Tea.20446.
Billig, M. (2005). Laughter and ridicule: Towards a social critique of humour. London: Sage.
Brickhouse, N. W. (2001). Embodying science: a feminist perspective on learning. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 38(3), 282–295.
Cohen, T. (1999). Jokes: Philosophical thoughts on joking matters. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Due, K. (2014). Who is the competent physics student? A study of students’ positions and social interaction in small-group discussions. Cultural Studies of Science Education, 9(2), 441–459. doi:10.1007/s11422-012-9441-z.
Dunbar, N. E., Banas, J. A., Rodriguez, D., Liu, S. J., & Abra, G. (2012). Humor use in power-differentiated interactions. Humor: International Journal of Humor Research, 25(4), 469–489. doi:10.1515/humor-2012-0025.
Fisher, M. S. (1997). The effect of humor on learning in a planetarium. Review of Science Education, 81(6), 703–713. doi:10.1002/(SICI)1098-237X(199711)81:6<703::AID-SCE7>3.0.CO;2-M.
Flores, S., Kanim, S. E., & Kautz, C. H. (2004). Student use of vectors in introductory mechanics. American Journal Of Physics, 72(4), 460–468. doi:10.1119/1.1648686.
Ford, T. E., Ford, B. L., Boxer, C. F., & Armstrong, J. (2012). Effect of humor on state anxiety and math performance. Humor: International Journal of Humor Research, 25(1), 59–74. doi:10.1515/humor-2012-0004.
Glenn, P. (2010). Interviewer laughs: Shared laughter and asymmetries in employment interviews. Journal of Pragmatics, 42(6), 1485–1498. doi:10.1016/j.pragma.2010.01.009.
Goodwin, C. (1981). Conversational organization: Interaction between speakers and hearers. New York: Academic Press.
Goodwin, C. (1994). Professional vision. American Anthropologist, 96(3), 606–633. doi:10.1525/aa.1994.96.3.02a00100.
Goodwin, C. (2000). Action and embodiment within situated human interaction. Journal of Pragmatics, 32(10), 1489–1522.
Goodwin, C. (2003). Pointing as situated practice. In S. Kita (Ed.), Pointing: Where language, culture and cognition meet (pp. 217–241). Hillsdale: Erlbaum, Lawrence & Associates.
Harré, R., & van Langenhove, L. (1999). Positioning theory: Moral contexts of intentional action. Malden: Blackwell.
Hasse, C. (2002). Gender diversity in play with physics: the problem of premises for participation in activities. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 9(4), 250–269. doi:10.1207/s15327884mca0904_02.
Have, P. (2007). Doing conversation analysis (2nd ed.). London: Sage.
Heller, P., & Hollabaugh, M. (1992a). Teaching problem solving through cooperative grouping. Part 1: group versus individual problem solving. American Journal of Physics, 60(7), 627–636. doi:10.1119/1.17117.
Heller, P., & Hollabaugh, M. (1992b). Teaching problem solving through cooperative grouping. Part 2: designing problems and structuring groups. American Journal of Physics, 60(7), 637–644. doi:10.1119/1.17118.
Hestenes, D., Wells, G., & Swackhamer, G. (1992). Force concept inventory. Review of The Physics Teacher, 30, 141–153.
Hodkinson, P., Biesta, G., & James, D. (2008). Understanding learning culturally: overcoming the dualism between social and individual views of learning. Vocations and Learning, 1(1), 27–47. doi:10.1007/s12186-007-9001-y.
Holbrow, C. H. (2012). Oersted Medal Address 2012: Narrative and witz in physics. American Journal of Physics, 80(6), 468–477. doi:10.1119/1.4709356.
Jefferson, G. (1979). A technique for inviting laughter and its subsequent acceptance/declination. In G. Psathas (Ed.), Everyday language: Studies in ethnomethodology (pp. 79–96). New York: Irvington Publishers.
Jefferson, G. (1984). On the organization of laughter in talk about troubles. In J. Atkinson & J. Heritage (Eds.), Structures of social action: Studies in conversational analysis (pp. 346–369). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Jefferson, G. (1985). An exercise in the transcription and analysis of laughter. In T. A. Van Dijk (Ed.), Handbook of discourse analysis (Discourse and dialogue, Vol. 3, pp. 25–34). London: London Academic Press.
Jefferson, G. (2004). A note on laughter in ‘male-female’ interaction. Discourse Studies, 6(1), 117–133. doi:10.1177/1461445604039445.
Jefferson, G. (2010). Sometimes a frog in your throat is just a frog in your throat: Gutturals as (sometimes) laughter-implicative. Journal of Pragmatics, 42(6), 1476–1484.
Jefferson, G., Sacks, H., & Schegloff, E. (1977). Preliminary notes on the sequential organization of laughter. Pragmatics Microfiche. Cambridge: Cambridge University, Department of Linguistics.
Jordan, B., & Henderson, A. (1995). Interaction analysis: foundations and practice. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 4(1), 39–103.
Koschmann, T., & Zemel, A. (2009). Optical pulsars and black arrows: discoveries as occasioned productions. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 18(2), 200–246.
Kuipers, G. (2006). Good humor, bad taste: A sociology of the joke. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lemke, J. L. (1990). Talking science: Language, learning, and values. Norwood: Ablex.
Lemke, J. L. (2001). Articulating communities: sociocultural perspectives on science education. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 38(3), 296–316.
Martin, S. N., Milne, C., & Scantlebury, K. (2006). Eye-rollers, risk-takers, and turn sharks: target students in a professional science education program. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 43(8), 819–851. doi:10.1002/Tea.20154.
Marton, F., & Booth, S. (1997). Learning and awareness. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Marton, F., & Pang, M. F. (2013). Meanings are acquired from experiencing differences against a background of sameness, rather than from experiencing sameness against a background of difference: Putting a conjecture to the test by embedding it in a pedagogical tool. Frontline Learning Research, 1(1), 24–41.
Marton, F., & Tsui, A. (2004). Classroom discourse and the space of learning. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum.
McDermott, L. C., & Redish, E. F. (1999). Resource letter: PER-1: physics education research. American Journal of Physics, 67(9), 755–767.
Melander, H. (2012). Transformations of knowledge within a peer group. Knowing and learning in interaction. Learning, Culture and Social Interaction, 1(3), 232–248.
Mortimer, E., & Scott, P. (2003). Meaning making in secondary science classrooms. Maidenhead: Open University Press.
O’Donnell‐Trujillo, N., & Adams, K. (1983). Heheh in conversation: some coordinating accomplishments of laughter. Western Journal of Communication, 47(2), 175–191.
Popper, K. (1988). The open universe: An argument for indeterminism. London: Routledge.
Psathas, G. (1995). Conversation analysis: The study of talk-in-interaction. Thousand Oaks: Sage.
Redish, E. (2003). Teaching physics with the physics suite. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons.
Roth, W.-M. (2005). Talking science: Language and learning in science classrooms. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Roth, W.-M., Ritchie, S. M., Hudson, P., & Mergard, V. (2011). A study of laughter in science lessons. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 48(5), 437–458. doi:10.1002/Tea.20412.
Scherr, R. E., & Hammer, D. (2009). Student behavior and epistemological framing: examples from collaborative active-learning activities in physics. Cognition and Instruction, 27(2), 147–174.
Seah, L. H., Clarke, D. J., & Hart, C. E. (2011). Understanding students’ language use about expansion through analyzing their lexicogrammatical resources. Science Education, 1–25. doi:10.1002/sce.20448.
Sfard, A. (1998). On two metaphors for learning and the dangers of choosing just one. Educational Researcher, 27(2), 4–13. doi:10.3102/0013189X027002004.
Silverman, D. (1998). Harvey Sacks: Social science and conversation analysis. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Springer, L., Stanne, M. E., & Donovan, S. S. (1999). Effects of small-group learning on undergraduates in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology: a meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 69(1), 21–51.
Stamovlasis, D., Dimos, A., & Tsaparlis, G. (2006). A study of group interaction processes in learning lower secondary physics. Journal of Research In Science Teaching, 43(6), 556–576.
Suzuki, H., & Heath, L. (2014). Impacts of humor and relevance on the remembering of lecture details. Review of Humor-International Journal of Humor Research, 27(1), 87–101. doi:10.1515/humor-2013-0051.
Tomas, L., & Ritchie, S. (2012). Positive emotional responses to hybridised writing about a socio-scientific issue. Research in Science Education, 42(1), 25–49. doi:10.1007/s11165-011-9255-0.
Wickman, P. O. (2006). Aesthetic experience in science education: Learning and meaning-making as situated talk and action. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Thanks to all the students and tutors that participated in the project Physics Learning in Groups, which was supported by the Swedish Research Council (VR-UVK). All humor in this manuscript has been translated by Professor Kirk Sullivan, many thanks. I would also like to thank researchers at the Centre for Gender Research (Uppsala University), the Division of Physics Education (Uppsala University), UFM and UMSER (Umeå University) who invited me to present my work-in-progress and gave helpful feedback on my analysis. Thanks to Professor Shirley Simon, Dr Veli-Matti Vesterinen, Professor Kate Scantlebury and Dr Cris Edmonds-Wathen for reading earlier drafts of this paper. I also appreciate the valuable comments from the anonymous reviewers. Finally, I am especially grateful for the support and encouragement from Dr Sylvia Benckert, well-experienced in both physics and physics education, you have been the perfect colleague to discuss physics humor with.
About this article
Cite this article
Berge, M. The Role of Humor in Learning Physics: a Study of Undergraduate Students. Res Sci Educ 47, 427–450 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11165-015-9508-4
- Collaborative learning
- Physics education
- Stylistic norms of science
- Conversation analysis