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Why and how to use humor in your online courses

Ever since the health crisis began, social media has been flooded with puns, jokes, and memes about it. It’s not that people don’t think it is serious, but we all just need to let out some steam, and humor is always a good outlet.

People need a laugh (or at least a smile or a mental nod for those who are more reluctant to manifest their feelings). So even though learning itself is a serious endeavor, an appropriate dose of humor will go a long way in making the experience more engaging and memorable.

Unless the topic is overly sensitive – like training on what to do if there is a major earthquake or other calamities – inserting some good-natured laughter into the content of your online course is more than welcome.

Humor creates a positive learning environment

Humor has a positive effect on learners and that leads to a relaxed, enjoyable learning environment. It does wonders for reducing anxiety and it makes people more eager to communicate and participate – which is absolutely paramount in online learning since there is no in-person instructor to draw out the shy or bored participants.

However, it’s a fine line between appropriate humor and going too far with it, so it’s best to test and get feedback before you launch the module. It should not damage the perception of the content as being relevant and important.

Read more: How to get feedback for your online course

After four decades of research, Professor John A. Banas from The University of Texas at Austin concluded: “The clearest findings regarding humor and education concern the use of humor to create a 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.”

Humor increases attention and interest

We feel good when we laugh and whenever we hear a good joke, we make an active effort to remember it so we can share it with others – I even know people who go the extra length and write in down in their phones for fear they might forget some of it.

There is an entire branch of the entertainment industry that is based on making people laugh – from stand-ups to sitcoms and the blockbusting comedies of Hollywood. The point is, human attention is immediately tweaked when there is the promise of some sort of punch line.

In order for your content (parts of it) to be deemed funny, there has to be some disruption and a little bit of confusion in the linear flow of information. The cognitive function is stimulated, thus making the learning process easier and the audience more engaged. According to the research done by J.D Berlyne, author of “Humor and Its Kin”, anything that disrupts expectations or surprises an individual, such as humor, can result in psychological arousal. This can instantly turn an inattentive participant into an active learner.

Humor increases divergent thinking skills

Professor Avner Ziv carried out two studies that set out to determine if the use of humor in university lectures leads to better exam results. This would entail that students can more easily retain course material that has been associated with humorous occurrences. His findings, however, were surprising in that he didn’t only demonstrate that humor generated better information retention rates but also enhanced creativity.

He theorized that the obvious divergent thinking displayed by the students to produce a variety of unique responses that appeared illogical, adventurous, and sometimes far-fetched was due to the fact that humor creates a fun mood and environment. This, in turn, encourages unusual responses. Also, by viewing humorous materials, study subjects were more likely to model “humorous logic” and that is naturally creative and disruptive.

However, the researcher issues a cautionary warning that not all kinds of humor will produce positive effects. Sarcasm, for one, might prove to be downright detrimental to learning.

3 Tips for using humor in your e-learning course

The realm of ‘funny’ is very wide and not all of us find the same things humorous. Sometimes it is a cultural thing, sometimes a generational one and on occasion, it simply has to do with personal taste.

So when you incorporate humor in your e-learning material you should:

  1. Make sure it will be correctly understood by your audience

    Since humor is basically based on surprise and incongruity, you want your public to figure them out instead of spending precious time wondering “what does that mean?”. If you have confusion instead of humor, you’ve lost them. The best way to ensure your funny endeavors are spot on is to test them on representatives of your learner persona.

  2. Use it to actually help with the learning process

    Of course you want your learners to have a good experience, give praising reviews and invite their friends to take your course. But keep your mind everyone’s end goal: learning something new. Make sure the humor will not overshadow or distract from the instructional message and that it is suitable for the target audience – you may choose to go with jokes, irony, humorous cartoons, or the now so popular viral videos.

    Read more: 6 Awesome tips to get more customer reviews for your online course [INFOGRAPHIC]

  3. Consider the placement of humor

    Knowing where you should use humor throughout your e-learning course is paramount. In some cases, it has the power to ease tension or anxiety – when dealing with difficult information or before quizzes – and in other cases, its purpose is to make the content more relatable. In the latter situation, storytelling or real-world examples work best.

    Read more: 4 Awesome ways to incorporate stories in your online course

Closing thoughts

Being successful as an independent e-learning designer is all about managing to produce modules that are responding to the target audience’s needs while being informative and engaging. While the entertaining side is optional, incorporating just the right amount and the right type of humor will render your course more appealing.

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