It's a word that carries a lot of connotations, many of them troubling to faculty. There's that big cohort of students who want learning to be fun and easy. A lot of learning isn't either. Most faculty get worried if the word is attached to a course they teach. It can mean they're entertaining more than educating. What happens in the classroom is serious business; students are being prepared for careers, in most cases at no small cost to them or their families. But then there's a body of research that makes a convincing case for humor in the classes. It doesn't cause learning, but it seems to create conditions conducive to it. It helps students relax and get more engaged with the material, and it motivates effort. And humor is definitely fun. “The fundamental belief is that greater knowledge and skill acquisition will result when learners have more fun, are actively involved and enjoy the learning process.” (p. 16) That's the observation of the authors of this research, which explored fun.
The problem with the word “fun” is that it's one of those wide-open terms. It can mean a multitude of different things—when it's being applied to what happens in a course and in a more general sense. “The term fun is common in our vernacular, yet no clear consensus exists as to what is meant by fun in the classroom or what conditions comprise a fun educational experience.” Any empirical investigation of fun needs to begin by clarifying those elements of instructional design and delivery that represent fun, and that's what this research team set out to do. They developed a scale that could be used in their own research and by others interested in systematically exploring the role of fun in college classrooms.
Developing the scale was a multistep process with some interesting findings along the way. The first step was to generate a list of items that could be labeled as fun in the classroom, which they did by asking 61 students to reflect on their classroom experiences and then list what they perceived to be fun, as in enjoyable, entertaining, humorous, or playful. (p. 18) Those student responses generated 20 items, which were given to 253 undergraduates who then rated the extent to which they thought each was fun. The top three? Humor, the instructor's bringing in food, and video clips. The lowest three? Discussions, working with others during class, and team-building activities with classmates. Next, almost 200 students from six management and engineering courses rated how often 17 fun elements (culled from the list of 20) had occurred in their preceding course.
A principal component analysis uncovered three factors that accounted for 59 percent of the analysis of variance. The first accounted for 39 percent of the variance researchers labeled fun activities. It included friendly small-group competitions, playing music, field trips, games, the instructor's bringing in food, and hands-on activities. The second factor they called fun delivery. It included humor, creative examples, real-life examples, attention-getters to generate student interest, the instructor's demonstration of course content, interactive lectures, and instructor storytelling and accounted for 14 percent of the total. A third component relating to interactive technology explained only 7 percent and was not included in the final scale.
The research team then used the newly developed scale to examine the relationship between fun in the classroom and student engagement. The assumption was that fun facilitates conditions of engagement. Prior research supportive of that assumption is described and referenced in the article. The fun-engagement relationship was explored with a cohort of 722 freshmen enrolled in 36 different courses across a wide variety of disciplines.
“Our hypothesis, which proposed that fun in the classroom would be positively related to student engagement, was partially supported. Fun delivery was positively related to overall engagement as well as the specified facets of cognitive engagement, emotional engagement and physical engagement. However, fun activities were not demonstrated to be significantly related to overall engagement, cognitive engagement, emotional engagement and physical engagement.” (p. 22-23) The researchers caution that given the preliminary nature of the work, it would be unwise to conclude that fun activities are not important. Their results were based on data collected in six-week courses. Fun activities may influence engagement more in full-length courses.
This is interesting work that does clarify with specific examples what students consider fun experiences in the classroom. It's encouraging as well because most of what students identified are well-known and widely accepted instructional approaches, not ones that inherently or automatically compromise the educational enterprise. Having fun in a course, at least as identified by the activities and action, can be part of an intellectually robust learning experience.
On the other hand, it is work that raises as many questions as it answers. When students have fun in a course, how does that affect their academic performance? Does it mean better grades? More learning? Does fun help some students more than others? Is having fun more important in some courses than others? Is it more necessary in large courses or small ones? What role do an instructor's personal characteristics and beliefs about fun in classrooms play? Should all instructors try to incorporate fun in their classrooms? Is there a point at which fun overshadows and diminishes the learning objectives of a course?
Given the associations frequently made between fun and compromised learning outcomes, it would be easy to dismiss work that explores fun as frivolous, trivial, and unimportant. Doing so would be a mistake. This research shows the value of unpacking the word in terms of specific referents so that we better understand what it means and are not deferring to emotional connotations when a student reports, “Oh, that's such a fun class!”
Reference: Tews, M. J., Jackson, K., Ramsay, C., and Michet, J. W. (2015). Fun in the college classroom: Examining its nature and relationship with student engagement. College Teaching, 63 (1), 16-26.