A Serious Look at Fun in College Classrooms

COVID has created a dearth of social experiences, but classes can be a venue for meeting new friends and making learning an enjoyable experience, write Sharon Lauricella and T. Keith Edmunds.

March 10, 2021
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College and university students face a wide range of stressors, including the financial (how can I pay for this?), social (my new partner dumped me!) and developmental (doing my own laundry and paying the internet bill). In the current COVID-19 reality, the stressors upon students are no doubt significantly heightened. Beyond typical college-age challenges, many students are now dealing with the complicating issues of remote learning and social isolation, as well as painful misfortunes like losing jobs or work experience.

Such concurrent stressors make positive experiences in the classroom all the more important. It is as helpful a time as ever to consider how learning can be a respite and a joy rather than a chore, regardless of whether the learning environment is face-to-face, online or blended.

Much to the detriment of both faculty and students, discussions about fun and closely related concepts are notably absent from the scholarship of learning in higher education. But we suggest that play and fun have a rightful and important role in in the classroom and suggest the notion of a ludic pedagogy. From the Latin ludere, “to play,” this model focuses on creating positive, fun experiences while still maintaining academic rigor. It is based on creating enjoyable educational situations so that students associate learning with positivity and engagement. Ludic pedagogy combines the related concepts of fun, play, playfulness and humor to establish a context for a positive, effective learning environment.

The adoption of a ludic pedagogy can result in a wide range of helpful outcomes. Whereas instructors have used grades for many years as extrinsic motivators for students, it is also well-known that grading can often actually diminish motivation and, indeed, learning itself. A fun class, on the other hand, supports intrinsic motivation, and students will most often want to learn in this environment. Implementation of a ludic pedagogy can help students find a source of joy in venues where often too little can be found. In developing such an environment, instructors can activate intrinsic motivation, demonstrating to students a world in which work is fun and fulfilling.

Humor, a concept closely affiliated with fun, has been shown to moderate the effects of stress on individuals. There are myriad other psychological benefits of humor, including reduction of anxiety, stress and tension, along with an increase in self-esteem, hope and empowerment. Each of these benefits, then, may be seen as rooted in the underlying ludic pedagogy. While not every student will respond to humor in the same way, particularly in a culturally diverse classroom, incorporating it has been shown to create an environment of rapport between students and faculty members. The use of appropriate humor can facilitate a more relaxed atmosphere and provide a cognitive break that allows the student to assimilate information.

Having fun in the classroom or online learning environment also has implications for the learning process. Student engagement is higher when classes are enjoyable, and the learning process itself is improved. Fun experiences are less difficult for the mind to process -- they carry a lower cognitive load. Greater levels of cognitive load are equated with decreased learning due to processing demands; it appears the reduced cognitive load associated with fun activities in fact leads to increased levels of learning. Similarly, a meta-analysis of 32 studies examining the impact of computer games or interactive simulations found not only better learning but also better attitudes toward learning.

Five Recommendations

COVID-19 has resulted in a dearth of social experiences traditionally commonplace on campuses. The academic classroom is not a substitute for frat parties -- nor does a ludic pedagogy intend it to be -- but it can surely be a venue for meeting new friends, laughing and practicing the notion that learning can be a fun experience. We therefore suggest five ways to incorporate fun into the (at present, often online) undergraduate experience.

No. 1: Use humor. Laughter and humor form a cornerstone of ludic pedagogy. One caveat is that humor in the classroom must be appropriate and relevant. Keep the laughs adjacent to course content and/or your institution’s environment. Find levity in humorous examples of course materials, problems, images or situations. Students more readily recall examples that are distinctive or funny. Images in online slides or screensharing can be incorporated into digital delivery.

No. 2: Gamify learning. Regardless of the specific form educational games may take (the current trend is overwhelmingly in the direction of computer games), polls, surveys or online quizzes are all excellent entry points to new subject matter, and they can be highly effective. Games or no- to low-stakes quizzes can engage students to check comprehension, ask for feedback or assess opinions. These activities can deliver a private result to students, but sometimes some friendly competition is fun, too, depending upon the size of the class and familiarity of course members.

No. 3: Engage social opportunities. The foundational elements of ludic pedagogy -- fun, in particular -- are embedded in most forms of social relations. Bringing such elements to the fore in the classroom has the potential to enhance interpersonal connections. By its nature, fun is often a social activity; therefore, embedding this element into the classroom builds cohesion and an increased likelihood of “pleasurable sociability.” Breakout rooms are an option in synchronous online courses, and presentation groups or peer editing are available social options in asynchronous ones.

No. 4: Model playfulness. Many of the suggestions we’ve offered are enhanced when the instructor is oriented toward playfulness and humor. When you demonstrate attributes like empathy, enthusiasm and openness, class activities won’t feel like a comedy club but rather a learning environment that is destressed and less anxious. While muted mikes can deter verbal participation in larger classes, the chat function is a helpful venue that can host backchannel banter.

No. 5: Don’t take everything too seriously. Even the most serious academic deserves to enjoy their work. We encourage you to follow Amy Poehler’s advice that “there’s power in looking silly and not caring that you do.” Students ought to see faculty modeling that learning is fun, can be social and can engage curiosity. While it is very likely that many games, jokes or activities will be successful in engaging students, it is also possible that other attempts will flop. If you demonstrate the courage and power to try, you will show students that learning is a dynamic experiment, failed attempts are acceptable, and that leaders should be willing to play, laugh (even at themselves) and practice. If you do this successfully, students will be more likely to immerse themselves into the fun of learning.

Students enrolled in a college or university expect to learn new things, socialize and have good job prospects after graduation. Learning during a pandemic shouldn’t deny these expectations. Yet the reality for many students -- especially during this period of online, HyFlex or masked delivery -- is that when classes are fun, it’s a bonus. A ludic pedagogy frames the undergraduate experience in a way that ushers in play, experimentation and vulnerability. If students have fun in higher education, it will benefit their education by means of motivation, well-being and improved learning. And they may also even take this ludic mind-set to the workplace and transform our professional culture into a more engaging, collaborative, enjoyable space, as well.

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Sharon Lauricella is associate professor of communication and digital media studies at Ontario Tech University, Oshawa, Ontario. She has been the recipient of the Ontario Tech Teaching Award (2009 and 2013) and the Social Science and Humanities Teaching Award (2014 and 2019) and is a nominee for the 3M National Teaching Fellowship. T. Keith Edmunds is a full-time faculty member at Assiniboine Community College in Brandon, Manitoba.

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