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Make 'em Laugh: Is Comedy Appropriate in eLearning?

After you’ve been creating eLearning for a while you’ll no doubt begin to find humor, or the potential for humor in the content that you develop. As we often work in teams, and report to a variety of personnel ranging from legal departments to subject matter experts – this generally gives rise to a very appropriate question: Should we add a joke?

The question of whether to educate or entertain is as old as learning itself. It’s no surprise that contemporary research has some answers for us. Zach Stambor did a very nice overview of the subject for the American Psychological Association in 2006 ( In the article he examines the results of several large studies and consults with recognized experts in the field of laughter and learning.

It’s noteworthy that the summary findings of their results run directly parallel to findings rooted in Cognitive Theory of Multimedia eLearning proported by Clark & Mayer & a host of other researchers. The nuts and bolts answer seems consistently supported by the research, even across disciplines:

  • Use humor only in the context of the learning. In other words, the humor must relate to the learning.
  • On topic humor is significantly better than no humor. Though the evidence from more recent studies suggests that it may only be effective in improving results for learners who are NOT highly motivated. (That’s egghead code for disengaged learners.)
  • Off topic humor may be significantly worse than no humor.
  • Highly motivated learners may be distracted by humor.
  • If you are very familiar with Cognitive theory of Multimedia eLearning you may recognize right away that there are parallels. In eLearning & the Psychology of Instruction Clark & Mayer propose guiding principles. Embedded among these principles is the notion of topical relevance. Research demonstrates that introducing material to the lesson that is not directly related to the topic is generally a distraction from the learning. (They call this principle, Coherency.) The work also identifies research which echoes the finding that highly motivated learners (people who have a strong internal or external need to learn the content) are clearly a different case than less motivated (or disengaged) learners.

    For example learners who are highly motivate do not gain as much from the integration of multimedia and interactivity as disengaged learners. This is a salient point for those creating online learning, because attrition rates in online courses tend to be higher than attrition rates in offline courses. If we make the logical leap that the attrition is due at least in large part to learner disengagement, then eLearning should have more multimedia, more interaction and more comedy than conventional courses.

    Clearly any funny stuff you add to courses needs to be directly on topic, and further the educational content upon which the course is focused. I think it’s also worth noting that as cognitive theory evolved (for example Alan Baddely’s model of working memory added a major component — the episodic buffer — in 2000) more evidence appears to point to the notion that we need to construct memorable narratives (stories if you prefer) to help us retain a long term map for new concepts. In some ways stories are a logical way of ‘making sense’ or organizing concepts. Humor is often reliant upon making non-sense of organizing concepts. We delight when we see comparative relationships that are humorous, ironic and / or nonsensical. So it’s reasonable to ask whether organizing concepts into logical narratives, whether humorous or simply supportive of the topic, is actually assisting the learner in converting short term memories into long term memories.

    There is clearly a need for more research in the area, particularly more research that specifically examines the results for online learning – and for more studies that look at the long term retention of ideas that were expressed through humor. That said, I think a little funny is always money when it comes to people feeling motivated to continue the work, and feeling happy about the experience that they’ve had.

    What do you think? Is Comedy appropriate in eLearning? Are there topics where funny should be tabboo? Is it impossible to get your team on board with an occasional joke? Do you have war stories to share? Success samples? Post them in the comments section below.

    17 Responses

    1. I find as humour is very personal, not only that it doesn’t always cross the geographical borders – nor different walks of life. I remember in a package we produced, they had a man burning ants with a magnifying glass, a spider coming to get a fly, another with a chap chopping a hand off coming towards a pile of money. Sick and twisted some may say, but it got over the training points. The content was for the training of some of the systems of a missile for the Armed Forces. Try doing something similar for a soft skills package, and you would be strung up!

      I have also seen where popular British comedy character Nora Batty was used in a piece of training that was delivered to customers. I didn’t even get it, nevermind the Middle Eastern clients who were to be trained in the same package!

      • John,

        Great points about the impact of culture on humor. It’s so often true that a joke or comical reference just falls completely flat when delivered to an audience that doesn’t share the same cultural context as the authors. Certainly it’s something to consider as people evaluate the use of humor in their content.

      • John is perfectly right here – be sensitive to the cultural differences when using humor. One person’s joke could be another person’s insult, even incomprehensible gibberish.
        With that in mind, I use carefully chosen cartoons (sold online) at strategic points to increase the impact, to lighten a relatively hard task or demand, or to break the monotony of tts voice.

    2. Even with the research, I still think humor is beneficial in the classroom. We shouldn’t keep from making students laugh because motivated students won’t benefit from it from an academic standpoint. They’ll still get good old genuine laughter and that’s better than getting none at all.

      • I find research like that to be as subjective as the humour and completely misses the point.

        People need to laugh, but the difference between an instructor/tutor-led course and an e-learning course is that the tutor should be able to sense their audience – and curb any humour injected into the course, where as an e-learning lesson – there is no gauge on that and therefore the humour throughout a chapter or module may be insulting or offensive.

    3. I am a student in the TRDV program at Roosevelt University, I think laughter is important. People should enjoy learning. Let the research say what it will. Making people laugh may mot be the “best” road to learning, however it will ensure that people enjoy the time, which might make them attend more learning…..and that is a road to learning.

    4. Is Comedy appropriate in e-Learning? I’m TRDV student at Roosevelt and I love a good laugh all the time, however I think that there’s a time and place for everything.. I can’t say that comedy is not appropriate for e-learning however; I do wonder how it can be incorporated into the e-learning process without losing the concentration of the highly-motivated learner and further disengaging the hard to engage learner. I had an instructor several semesters ago who stated that he took improve classes to help him in his delivery in the class. I did enjoy his lectures, but this was in a face-to-face situation, it worries me that the comedy in an e-learning situation may fail as well as the transfer of knowledge.

    5. As a Training Specialist humor is the best medicine and I do feel it’s important to add laughter to any presentation for any variety of audience members. It breaks up the monotony and boredom that is expected in a lecture within a training facility. Is it okay to add a joke or two during your presentation? Absolutely! I’ve had experiences where I inserted some funny incidents that happened to me and it lifted the mood in the classroom. They felt more at ease and even participated in an exchange of funny past times. Although you do need to keep a sense of control within the classroom setting so the class stays focused. That’s the one thing I had to take control of. It ‘s important to keep the disciplines consistent in using humor sparingly and in relation to the learning curriculum. Caution should e noted when you have those students who regard their education very high and simply do not find humor appropriate within a learning relm. Check out the rest of this article using humor in the classroom.

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