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Humor in Learning

By Haanim Galvaan - March 11, 2020 |

Photo by Sebastian Coman Photography / Pexels

My high school biology teacher was very serious. She wasn’t quick to smile, she was stern and almost never laughed. That is why on the day she made a joke about sphincters, I laughed. I laughed way more than I should have.


The lesson was about the difference between the voluntary and involuntary sphincters.


The teacher was explaining that we do not have control over the involuntary ones, but that we do have control of voluntary ones.


An example of where both can be found is the anus. The involuntary sphincter is what causes pressure and alerts you that you need to defecate. The teacher went on to say “and you will appreciate, then, why having a voluntary sphincter is so important. Imagine not being able to control when and how you defecate! We’d all just be walking around pooping uncontrollably!”


I don’t remember much from high school biology, but 14 years later, I can tell you the difference between voluntary and involuntary sphincters. I firmly believe that the only reason I remember this biology lesson is because my teacher made it funny.


Why can't we show a sense of humor about learning when it's appropriate to do so?

Research shows that humor can increase retention because it activates the brain’s dopamine reward system, and it stimulates the goal-setting and long-term memory areas.


The internet is the funniest place on earth. No matter what is happening in the news, or no matter what amusing idea you have for your niche hobby, you can be sure that someone on the internet has already made a meme about it, or expressed your feelings in a funny way. If e-learning happens on the internet, why then, should it behave like it is not? Why can’t we show a sense of humor about learning when it is appropriate to do so?


I’m not suggesting that Instructional Designers go wild and enact their comedic dreams in the nearest LMS (Learning Management System) they can find, but when considering incorporating humor into your e-learning, here are a few tips to consider.


Be Appropriate


The saying “there’s a time and place for everything” rings true here.


If your course is about something like Ice Cream 101, for example, it’s safe to say that the content is light-hearted, so adding something humorous is acceptable in this case (if you were thinking that this is a hypothetical example, think again and see the excerpt below).

Making a joke about which type of ice cream is better than another is not going to offend anyone. It’s not personal and nobody is going to take it personally.


However, if you are writing a course about how to counsel patients who have just been diagnosed with any form of terminal illness, there is almost no situation where you can guarantee getting humor ‘right’.


These are of course two examples that sit on extremes, one is extremely light-hearted and the other is highly sensitive. If there was a “trick” to humor in learning, it’s that the sweet spot lies somewhere in between.


Drive the Topic Forward


In another study, learners were surveyed on their lecturer’s use of humor. It was found that while students appreciated a funny teacher, their personality or sense of humor itself didn’t increase retention. A teacher being silly in front of the class is going to catch the students' attention, but it does not ensure that they are retaining and internalizing the learning. Presenting content in a humorous way is going to be more effective than being funny while presenting your content. Humor is most effective in learning when it is topic-based and used to drive the topic forward.


Don’t Overdo It


Not everything has to be funny. Humor can be used to punctuate key sections and concepts so that they stand out in a student’s mind. Think of humor like adding salt to your food. You use it to make the meal taste better, but using too much of it will leave a bad taste in your mouth. The same is true for using humor in learning. If everything is funny, it is sure to lose its impact.


Don’t Force It


Have you ever been in a situation where someone makes a joke, nobody gets it and they try to explain their joke? Usually the more they explain it, the less funny it becomes.


Using humor in your learning content is like sharing an inside joke with your student. In an online learning context, you may not be able to explain your jokes to them (not that you would want to), so your joke has to land on the first try.


If a humorous take doesn’t come naturally, you might want to consider letting it go. Sense-checking your humorous content with a peer is a good idea, but if something is not immediately funny, there’s a simple rule: don’t force it.


I’m struggling to find something smart or funny to say in this last paragraph, so I’m not going to force it. See what I did there?

Haanim Galvaan

Learning Designer at Construct