Humour and Cognitive Skills:
A Systematic Review of Empirical Research in Higher Education

Systematic review humour cognitive skills education empirical research

Table of Contents

What is the Purpose of this Systematic Review?

This systematic review explores empirical research which focuses on the relationship between humour and cognitive skills and cognitive performance within a higher education setting. 

The aims of this systematic review are as follows:

  • To assess the extent to which empirical research has focused on the relationship between humour and cognitive skills in higher education.
  • To assess the publication trends over the past five decades. 
  • To explore the nature and focus on the empirical research with particular interest in:
      1. The countries the research was conducted in.
      2. The specific cognitive skills in focus.
      3. The subject areas/disciplines in focus.
      4. The research methods used.

Systematic Review Process

To ensure an appropriate process was used to conduct the systematic review the four stage PRISMA (2009) systematic review process was adopted:

  1. Identification
  2. Screening
  3. Eligibility
  4. Inclusion

1. Identification

The first stage of ‘identification’ refers to identifying an initial set of research articles using clearly defined parameters.

(a) Databases

Three databases were selected for review:

  1. British Education Index
  2. Education Resources Information Centre (ERIC)
  3. PsycINFO (American Psychological Association

(b) Search Parameter

After exploring over 196 different search term combinations, a specific search term was identified as being most likely to provide a highly focused search output related to the humour and cognitive skills.

The following search term was used consistently across all three databases:

Humour or humor or laugh or laughing or laughter or comedy or jokes

[and]

Higher education or college or university or post secondary or postsecondary

The focus on cognitive skills was deliberately omitted from the primary search term to ensure a broader set of results were initially generated around the use of humour within higher education.

This supports a broader understanding of the literature and how research which focused on humour and cognitive skills was positioned within the wider literature in this subject area.

(c) Initial Output

Using the specific search term stated above for the three identified databases, 8,533 results were generated (after removal of any duplicates). 

2. Screening

The second stage is ‘screening’ which refers to the process of reviewing the initial set of research articles in order to determine which articles are to be included or excluded from the review.

This is achieved by using clearly defined inclusion/exclusion criteria. Full texts were not reviewed at this stage but rather the screening was achieved through the use of search filters and review of abstracts only.

Of the 8,533 initial items identified, 88 were selected for inclusion following the screening process. The screening process is outlined below in table 1.

Table 1: Screening Process

Inclusion Criteria No. Items
Initial number of items
8,533
Published in English
8,252
Peer Reviewed Publication
6,384
Published in an academic journal
6.252
Search terms contained in title, abstract or key words
836
Empirical research (based on review of abstract)
406
Date range: 1970 - 2019
400
Focused on humour, cognitive skills and higher education
88

3. Eligibility

The third stage of ‘eligibility’ refers to a more detailed review of the 88 items that have been identified following the previous screening process. 

The full text of all 88 included items was reviewed to determine whether each item should be included within the final analysis. Of the 88 included items 54 were determined to be eligible for final inclusion. 

All 54 items selected for inclusion met the following criteria:

  • Contained empirical research
  • Used higher education students as subjects
  • Focused on the relationship between humour and cognitive skills.

The eligibility process is outlined below in table 2.

Table 2: Eligibility Process

Inclusion Criteria No. Items
Initial number of items included following screening process
88
Contained empirical research
86
Used higher education students as subjects
63
Focused on the relationship between humour and cognitive skills
54

4. Inclusion

The final stage of ‘included’ refers to the final set of items which are to be confirmed and included for analysis. 

54 items have been included for analysis which contain empirical research, use higher education students as subjects and focus on the relation between humour and cognitive skills.

Analysis of the Wider Empirical Publications on Humour in Higher Education

Before analysing the 54 empirical publications identified within the systematic review, which focus on humour and cognitive skills in higher education, it was deemed important to first consider the general trends in publication for the broader research on humour in higher education. 

The systematic review identified 400 empirical publications which met the criteria of having a focus on humour in higher education. These 400 publications have been analysed for trends in publication dates. 

Graph 1 represents the number of empirical publications focusing on humour in higher education between 1970-2019 (400 publications). 

Graph 1: Number of empirical publications per year focusing on humour in higher education between 1970-2019

Graph 1 systematic review Humour in Higher Education

Whilst the number of publications varies year on year, the trendline highlights a consistent frequency of publications; averaging 8.00 per year. 

This demonstrates a modest but consistent research focus on humour in higher education over the past five decades.

 

Graph 2 represents the number of empirical publications focusing on humour in higher education over the past ten years (2010-2019). 

Graph 2: Number of empirical publications per year focusing on humour in higher education between 2010-2019

Graph 2 systematic review Humour in Education 2010 2019

There have been 88 publications in the past ten years which accounts for 22% of the total publications between 1970-2019. 

Although there was a small increase in the average number of publications per year (8.00 to 8.80), the trendline highlights a negative trend in the number of publications over the past decade which suggests a potential reduction in focus for research into humour in higher education.

 

With a broader understanding of the trends in publication of humour in higher education, the same publication date analysis was carried out for empirical publications which focus on humour and cognitive skills in higher education.

The systematic review identified 54 publications which met this criterion. Graph 3 represents the number of empirical publications focusing on humour and cognitive skills in higher education between 1970-2019. 

Graph 3: Number of empirical publications per year focusing on humour and cognitive skills in higher education between 1970-2019

Graph 3 systematic review Humour and Cognitive Skills in Higher Education

The average number of publications per year is 1.08, which only accounts for a small proportion of the overall empirical publications focusing on humour in higher education. However, the trendline for humour and cognitive skills in higher education highlights a positive trend in empirical publications. 

Although humour and cognitive skills only makes up a small proportion of the overall publications on humour in higher education, the positive trendline demonstrates a progressive focus on this area of research over the past five decades, compared to other themes within the wider research into humour in higher education.

 

Graph 4 represents the number of empirical publications focusing on humour and cognitive skills in higher education between 2010-2019. 

Graph 4: Number of empirical publications per year focusing on humour and cognitive skills in higher education between 2010-2019

Graph 4 systematic review Humour and Cognitive Skills 2010 2019

There have been 22 publications in the last ten years which accounts for 41% of the total publications between 1970-2019. This demonstrates a recent increase in research focus in this area. 

There is also a significant increase in the average number of publications per year, from 1.08 between 1970 2019 raising to 2.20 between 2010-2019. 

The trendline in graph 4 highlights a positive trend, which is in contrast to the negative trend observed for wider empirical publications focusing on humour in higher education between 2010-2019. 

There has been a doubling of the average number of publications per year, the positive trendline and the high proportion of empirical publications being published within the last ten years all indicate that there is growing research focus on humour and cognitive skills in higher education. 

Whilst a focus on humour and cognitive skills in higher education presents with a positive trend, out of the 400 empirical publications identified as focusing on humour in higher education, only 54 were identified as having a focus on cognitive skills.

The 54 cognitive skills publications account for only 14% of the wider 400 publications in humour in higher education.

This demonstrates that although there is a growing interest in research focusing on humour and cognitive skills in higher education, this area of research continues to account for a small proportion of the overall wider empirical research focusing on humour in higher education.

This lack of focus supports the empirical case for continued research and greater exploration of this subject area.

Analysis of Empirical Publications on Humour and Cognitive Skills in Higher Education

Using the 54 empirical publications that have been identified via the systematic review, focusing on humour, cognitive skills and higher education, the following five questions will be explored:

  1. Which countries did the research take place in?
  2. Which subject areas/disciplines are in focus?
  3. Which cognitive skills are in focus?
  4. Which research methods are used?
  5. Which publications focused on learning cultures?

Which Countries did the Research Take Place in?

The research took place in 14 different countries. This is presented in table 3 and graph 5 below.

The majority of the research took place in the USA (61%), with Australia (6%), China (4%) and Turkey (4%) also featuring more than once. The remaining countries only featured in one empirical publication each.

The dominance of USA-based research could result in research findings which are not applicable or transferable to other global education systems. 

There is an empirical case for a greater volume of research in countries other than the USA to ensure research in humour and cognitive skills can be applied to a more varied and diverse set of educational systems and contexts.

The UK was one of the countries which only had one empirical publication demonstrating a potential need for UK-based research in this area.  

Table 3: Country where research took place within the 54 empirical publications identified within the systematic review

Country Occurrences Percentage
USA
33
61%
Australia
3
6%
China
2
4%
Turkey
2
4%
Finland
1
2%
Germany
1
2%
Iran
1
2%
Iraq
1
2%
Malaysia
1
2%
Pakistan
1
2%
Thailand
1
2%
United Kingdom
1
2%
Not Specified
5
9%

Graph 5: Country where research took place within the 54 empirical publications identified within the systematic review

Graph 5 Systematic review humour and cognitive skills Which Countries did the research take place in

Which Subject Areas/Disciplines are in Focus?

12 different subject areas were featured. This is presented in table 4 and graph 6 below. 

Psychology and statistics were the most commonly featured subject area, each featuring within 15% of the publications. Psychology is likely to have been a prominent subject area as a result of using PsycINFO as one of the databases selected for the systematic review. 

The use of statistics was commonly justified within the publications as being a subject which is considered to be poorly liked by students and a very challenging subject area for students. Subsequently, researchers expressed an interest in the role humour may play in supporting the teaching of statistics as a tool for enhanced student engagement. 

Beyond psychology and statistics there were no other dominant subject areas featured within the publications. 

The range of subject areas used offers a broader insight into understanding humour in higher education but with minimal occurrences for each subject area no depth in body of research exists within a single subject area. 

In addition, there are a number of prominent subject areas, particularly from more traditionally artistic disciplines, which were not featured within the 54 empirical publications identified within this systematic review, such as: art, dance, drama, music, physical education, geography, history and others. 

Due to the lack of focus on any one subject area, there is justification for proposed research on humour in higher education within any subject area as it will further develop the evidence base within that chosen context.

Or alternatively, this may suggest the need for a more holistic account of humour on a more cultural level as this would reduce the relevance of subject area/discipline differences.

Table 4: Subject areas featured within the 54 empirical publications identified within the systematic review

Subject Area/Discipline Occurrences Percentage
Psychology
8
15%
Statistics
8
15%
English
5
9%
Science
4
7%
Health Care
3
6%
Communications
3
6%
Research Methods
1
2%
Management and Leadership
1
2%
Sociology
1
2%
Politics
1
2%
Media Studies
1
2%
Modern Foreign Languages
1
2%
Not Specified
17
31%

Graph 6: Subject areas featured within the 54 empirical publications identified within the systematic review

Graph 6 Systematic review Humour Subject Discipline research

Which Cognitive Skills are in Focus?

7 cognitive skills were featured. This is presented in table 5 and graph 7 below. 

Comprehension was the most commonly featured cognitive skill, found within 44% of the publications, with creativity (21%) and memory (20%) also featuring in a prominent number of the publications. 

Comprehension, creativity and memory were featured in 85% of the publications, with problem solving, attention, ideation and decision making featuring within the remaining 15%. 

Whilst there is a modest range of cognitive skills featured within the empirical publications, the majority of research features only three cognitive skills (comprehension, creativity and memory) and offers limited attention to other cognitive skills. 

In addition, there are a number of commonly cited cognitive skills which have not been featured in any of the empirical publications identified within this systematic review, such as: perception, language use, speed of information processing, category formation and pattern recognition. 

Based on the empirical publications identified within this systematic review there appears to be a very narrow focus for research in this area and there is a need for greater exploration of a wider range of cognitive skills in relation to humour in higher education.

One cognitive skill which appears to be underrepresented within the 54 empirical publications is ‘problem solving’. And there is a strong case for more attention to be offered to problem solving skills. 

When considering the emphasis that Kant (1790), Suls (1983) and Hurley et al. (2011) have placed on the
importance of problem solving as the essential skill required to resolve cognitive incongruities, the lack of focus on problem solving and humour within the empirical research is somewhat surprising.

Supporting this is the World Economic Forums, ‘Skills for the Future‘ survey which is conducted every 5 years to identify the skills employers require in their employees. Problem Solving has been placed in the number one spot for the past two surveys acknowledging problem solving as a fundamental skill for the future.  

There is, therefore, an empirical case for additional research focusing on the relation between humour and problem solving within higher education.

Table 5: Cognitive skills featured within the 54 empirical publications identified within the systematic review

Cognitive Skill Occurrences Percentage
Comprehension
27
44%
Creativity
13
21%
Memory
12
20%
Problem Solving
4
7%
Attention
3
5%
Ideation
1
2%
Decision Making
1
2%

Graph 7: Cognitive skills featured within the 54 empirical publications identified within the systematic review

Graph 7 Systematic review Humour and Cognitive Skills

Which Research Methods are Used?

10 different research methods were featured. This is presented in table 6 and graph 8 below. 

Of the 10 research methods featured within the empirical publications, three were most prominent: questionnaires (37%), interventions (29%) and tests (17%). 

These three research methods accounted for 83% of the empirical publications within this systematic review. 

Students typically used questionnaires to assess the humorousness of their teacher, an activity, humorous stimuli or themselves. When teachers used questionnaires, they would typically assess the humorousness of their lessons or themselves. Questionnaires were used for both humour and cognitive skill assessment/measurement. 

Interventions were generally humorous interventions which allowed for testing pre/post intervention to assess whether the humorous intervention had an effect on, or relationship with, cognitive skills. 

Testing was mainly used to assess cognitive skills to determine whether a student had an improved ability to solve problems, remember key information, think creatively or better understand the topic being taught. 

Seven other research methods were used but they were less prominent featuring in only 27% of the empirical publications. 

When considering the number of publications which adopted a mixed methods approach, only 3 can be identified. 

The first combined interviews, observation, questionnaires and a case study; the second combined questionnaires, testing and brainwave analysis; and the third combined questionnaires and written text analysis. 

With only 6% of the empirical publications adopting a mixed method approach there is a potential case for the need of additional mixed methods approaches to investigating humour and cognitive skills within higher education.

Table 6: Research methods featured within the 54 empirical publications identified within the systematic review

Research Method Occurrences Percentage
Questionnaire
28
37%
Intervention
22
29%
Test
13
17%
Interview
3
4%
Observation
3
4%
Case Study
3
4%
Discourse Analysis
1
1%
Action Research
1
1%
Brain Wave Analysis
1
1%
Text Analysis
1
1%

Graph 8: Research methods featured within the 54 empirical publications identified within the systematic review

Graph 8 Systematic review Humour research methods

Which Publications Focused on Learning Cultures?

Humour research tends to focus on the individual, e.g. the student’s or teacher’s production, comprehension or appreciation of humour. Whilst this is an entirely appropriate approach to conducting humour research there appears to be very little research which focuses on humorous learning cultures. Therefore, a cultural approach to understanding humour in education is worthy of exploration in the systematic review. 

Of the 54 empirical publications identified within the systematic review, none focused on learning cultures, learning environments or other related cultural/environmental aspects of teaching, learning and education. 

Three publications did consider how the relationship between humour and cognitive skills may affect groups of people. However, the majority of empirical research into humour and cognitive skills in higher education adopts an individualised approach. 

Typically, research is focused on how individual teachers use humour, how individual students detect, comprehend and appreciate humour, and how individual students’ cognitive skills are influenced/impacted by humour. 

There is a significant lack of focus on the role humour plays within groups as well as the relation between humorous learning cultures and cognitive skills. 

Considering the predominant research methods used within the 54 empirical publications, as summarised previously, the predominant methods used all lend themselves to individual assessment of humour and cognitive skills: questionnaires, interventions and tests. 

Questionnaires and tests were typically used to assess individual students and teachers and when interventions were used in a group setting the assessment that followed was often a questionnaire or test, again, applied in an individualised way. 

Very few publications consider the importance of assessing the performance and perspectives of groups and a wider range of research methods could be applied to support a group-focused or learning culture-focused approach to humour research. 

For example, observations were only used in three of the publications and discourse analysis was only used in one publication, both of which may produce more effective data when considering how humour and cognitive skills relate to groups and learning cultures. 

Additional research methods should also be considered, such as focus groups, which were entirely absent from the empirical publications within this systematic review. 

There is a strong empirical case for the need for greater focus on the relation between humorous learning cultures and cognitive skills and a more diverse range of research methods are needed to support this change in focus. 

Additional Exploration to Requirements of Empirical Research

It has been acknowledged that the empirical case thus far requires analysis in additional areas and a wider scope is needed to ensure a richer picture of the empirical landscape for this research area is understood. 

Further exploration is required into a number of areas and this will be undertaken as the empirical case develops over time. 

A similar review of the empirical research conducted at alterative stages of education is required, e.g. primary and secondary. 

Empirical research into humour and cognitive skills conducted in a non-educational context needs to be considered. 

Similarly, empirical research from other disciplines and contexts is important to develop a better understanding of how humour is assessed and measured, how cognitive skills are assessed and measured and how learning cultures are defined and measured. 

The analysis conducted within this systematic review provides a good foundation for the development of an empirical case for research however additional empirical research needs to be incorporated and analysed to further refine these findings and establish more meaningful conclusions to inform future research in humour and education. 

Author: Jonathan Sandling

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