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 for some training topics, there are many 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. We recognize humor when something brings a smile, amusement, joy or laughter to others. It can occur in verbal and nonverbal communications.
Humor and Laughter Have a Purpose
Humor comes to us naturally. 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.
Appropriate humor can enhance a learning experience, but it must be used correctly so it’s 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, the things we find funny often stem from incongruity and surprise. The person who is amused perceives an inconsistency between what they expect 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
Positive humor can be beneficial to learning. Aggressive or disparaging humor is not. 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, non-aggressive 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, however, 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.
Also, see my interview with humor writing professor, Mark Shatz.
- Aylor, B and Oppliger, P. (2003). Out-of-Class Communication and Student Perceptions of Instructor Humor Orientation and Socio-Communicative Style.Communication Education, 52(2): 122-34.
- 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.
- Berlyne, D. (1972). Humor and its kin. In G. Goldstein and P. McGhee (Eds.). The Psychology of Humor. New York: Academic Press.
- Bolkan, S., Griffin, D. and Goodboy, Al (2018). Humor in the classroom: the effects of integrated humor on student learning. Communication Education, 67(2).
- Gervais, M., & Wilson, D. S. (2005). The evolution and functions of laughter and humor: A synthetic approach. Quarterly Review of Biology, 80: 395– 430.
- Horton, A. (2000) Laughing Out Loud: Writing the Comedy-Centered Screenplay. University of California Press.
- Martin, R. A. (2007). The psychology of humor: An integrative approach. Burlington, MA: Academic Press.
- 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
- Summerfelt, H., Lippman, L., & Hyman, I. (2010). The effect of humor on memory: Constrained by the pun. The Journal of General Psychology, 137: 376-394.
- Vance, C. (1987). A comparative study on the use of humor in the design of instruction. Instructional Science, , 16(1): 79-100.
- Wanzer, M.B., Frymier, A.B., & Irwin, J. (2010). An explanation of the relationship between instruction humor and student learning: Instructional humor processing theory. Communication Education, 59(1):1-18.
- 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.