It’s hard to tune out when something is funny. You just want to keep watching or listening. If humor grabs and sustains attention and if it evokes pleasant and positive feelings, why don’t we use it more often in learning experience design?
Although it would be insensitive to use humor for some training topics, there are an abundance of opportunities where humor would be appropriate. In this article, I review the research evidence both in favor of using humor for instructional purposes and in ways that it is not helpful.
Having a sense of humor is described as the appreciation of things that are amusing. It is also the ability to make humorous comments or have humorous perceptions. You can recognize humor because it brings a smile, amusement, joy or laughter to others. It can occur in verbal and nonverbal communications.
Humor and Laughter Have a Purpose
Humans are predisposed to humor. Babies as young as three months develop the capacity to appreciate humor, particularly from unexpected stimuli that occur in a safe setting (think peek-a-boo). Humor can also improve social influence by enhancing how much a person is liked. Psychologists point out that humor is often a coping mechanism to help us get through difficult situations.
As to its effects on instruction, appropriate humor can enhance a learning experience, but it must be used correctly so that it is not a distraction. In a classroom environment, positive humor can increase group cohesion. Laughter releases endorphins that promote bonding. Humor can also reduce tension, such as before a test or when the individuals in a group don’t know each other.
What makes you laugh?
Although it may vary by country and culture, there seems to be some agreement that the things we find funny stem from incongruity and surprise. The person who is amused perceives an inconsistency between what he or she expects and what is delivered. This incongruity is the basis for a wide range of funny antics, including satire, parody, jokes, puns and slapstick.
Benefits of Using Humor for Learning
The beneficial effects in formal instruction result from using humor in a positive way. Aggressive or disparaging humor is not effective. A review of the research demonstrates that the use of humor in formal instruction can potentially enhance learning. Here are a summary of benefits from a research review.
Creates a positive learning environment. Humor elicits a positive affect in learners, which in turn creates a pleasant and enjoyable learning environment. This can reduce anxiety about studying difficult subjects. It can also make learners feel more comfortable communicating in an online or in-person class. Yet, humor that is used too frequently or inappropriately might cause learners to think that an important topic is trivial. Therefore, humor must be accompanied by good judgement.
In his review of forty years of humor research, Banas (2011) sums it up well, “The clearest findings regarding humor and education concern the use of humor to create learning environment. The use of positive, nonaggressive humor has been associated with a more interesting and relaxed learning environment, higher instructor evaluations, greater perceived motivation to learn, and enjoyment of the course.”
Increases attention and interest. Humor has been shown to increase attention and interest. According to research by Berlyne (1972), anything that disrupts expectations or surprises a person, such as humor, can result in psychological arousal. This can transform an inattentive learner into a moderately attentive learner, which facilitates performance.
Improves instructor-student relationships. Humor has the ability to reduce the psychological distance between an instructor and a learner. Aylor and Opplinger (2003) found that humor contributes to the sense that an instructor is approachable. The resulting increase in interactions leads to a more meaningful relationship.
Enhances recall and aids learning. Adding humor to instruction has the potential to aid recall. For example, in lab experiments, learners were able to recall humorous information more easily than non-humorous information Schmidt, 2002). Also, lectures that had a humor treatment increased test scores compared to those without a humor treatment. (Ziv, 1988). In the latter experiments, Ziv used these criteria:
- Humor was relevant to the lessons
- There were three or four jokes per lesson
- Tests contained questions about the humorously presented
- Concepts were first taught with no humor but they were illustrated with a joke. Then, the concept was paraphrased at the end without humor.
Increases divergent thinking skills. This fascinating finding relates to the potential for humor to enhance creativity. During the creative process, we use divergent thinking to produce a variety of unique responses that may seem illogical, adventurous or incompatible.
In two studies by Ziv (1983), the use of humor (reading cartoons and watching humorous films) resulted in enhanced divergent thinking. He theorized this was due to the fact that humor creates a fun mood and environment, which encourages unusual responses. Also, by viewing humorous materials, study subjects were more likely to model “humorous logic.” Finally, participants were explicitly instructed to use humor, which may have triggered original thinking.
Guidance for Using Humor in Instruction
Ensure that your humor will be correctly understood by the audience. According to the instructional humor processing theory (IHPT), learners need to perceive and then resolve the incongruity in a humorous instructional message. If the humor is understood, it increases attention. If the learner cannot resolve the incongruity, he or she may experience confusion instead of humor (Wanzer et al., 2010). Confusion is not an optimal state for learning.
Consider the placement of humor. Some researchers believe that the placement of humor has a significant impact on learning. Contiguous humor is not tightly tied to the content of the instructional message. An example is the use of a humorous theme or context that occurs before and at the end of an eLearning lesson. Conversely, integrated humor is embedded in instructional lessons or activities.
If content recall is a goal, there is evidence to support the use of contiguous humor over integrated. Use humor for increased interest and motivation at the start and end, but avoid its use for key instructional points. It is possible that humor could interfere with processing instructional content. Note that most of the research was done in educational rather than workplace settings.
Reflect on how using humor can help to achieve the instructional goal. As with all design strategies, think through the purpose of using humor for your learning experience. Determine the type you will use: satire, irony, farce, jokes, etc. Ensure the humor will not overshadow or distract from the instructional message and that it is appropriate for the target audience.
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- Banas, J., Dunbar, N., Rodriguez, D. and Liu, S. (2011). A Review of Humor in Educational Settings: Four Decades of Research. Communication Education, 60(1): 115-144.
- Berlyne, D.E. (1972). Affective aspects of aesthetic communication. In T. Alloway, L. Krames, and P. Pliner (Eds.), Communication and affect: A comparative approach. New York: Academic.
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- Schatz, M. and LoSchiavo, F. (2006). Bringing Life to Online Instruction with Humor. Radical Pedagogy, http://www.radicalpedagogy.org/radicalpedagogy/Bringing_Life_to_Online_Instruction_with_Humor.html
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- Ziv, A. (1983). The influence of humorous atmosphere on divergent thinking. School Psychology International 1(2): 21-23.
- Ziv, A. (1988). Teaching and learning with humor: Experiment and replication. Journal of Experimental Education, 57(1): 5-15.