Sarcasm in the Classroom Works, Study Shows

Being sarcastic in the classroom helps students in urban communities build trust with their instructors and establish focused, meaningful learning, according to a new study published in the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy.

Through sarcasm, students who participated in the study learned to challenge conventional thinking, interpret complex idiosyncrasies in English, and engage in dialogic and respectful conversations.

“Sarcasm, as an ironic speech act, promotes critical language awareness and thinking instead of conditioned response, which is common in high schools,” the study found.

Lead researcher Joanne Larson is a teaching and curriculum professor at the University of Rochester. Larson recruited two English teachers, Tim Morris and Kristen Shaw, at East High School in Rochester, N.Y., to serve as participants and co-researchers in the study.

The team used participatory ethnography — a method of building understanding within a system to empower students — to conduct the study, which included tasks like giving riddles. The teachers used exaggeration, intonation, hyperbole, understatement, repetition, prosody, proximity, speed of utterance, and solidarity with students as cues for them to interpret underlying meaning. This language play built intimacy within the classroom and further relational connections, the research says.

Humor in the classroom contributes to improved academic outcomes; rapport among students, teachers, and subject matter; higher student motivation; and increased attendance rates, the study shows.

Not all students appreciated the sarcasm, according to the study. One student transferred classrooms and another worried about how his shyer peers were handling the sarcasm.

“We are not suggesting that all teachers should start being sarcastic in their classrooms,” the researchers wrote. “We are suggesting that a purposeful and reflective use of sarcasm and humor can support learning complex language,” the study states.