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The Role of Humor in Learning Physics: a Study of Undergraduate Students


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.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    For further details about the project Physics Learning in Groups, see Berge (2011)

  2. 2.

    Frilägga means to draw a force diagram, it is a Swedish term that does not have any equivalence in English

  3. 3.

    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.


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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.

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Correspondence to Maria Berge.

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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

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  • Humor
  • Laughter
  • Collaborative learning
  • Physics education
  • Stylistic norms of science
  • Conversation analysis