Are Cognitive Cartoons Really Energizing Brain Boosters?

By Thomas Royce Wilson, PhD

As an educator, I have always used humor to reach and teach my students. Before teaching at the university level, I taught high school English. When I happen to see my former high school students, they often tell me how my jokes helped them remember writing strategies throughout college and beyond. Humor might work well with high school students, but does it have a place in higher education or in faculty training? The research indicates that it does.

The Brain’s Connection to the Funny Bone

Research has suggested that humor can have a beneficial effect on learning. Among students, humor has been found to reduce stress, increase attentiveness, increase satisfaction with learning, improve comprehension, improve memory performance, boost creativity, spark a motivation to learn, and eliminate plagiarism (Berk, 2002; Schmidt & Williams, 2001; Willard, 2006). OK, I threw in that last benefit as wishful thinking, but the idea is that humor seems to support learning.

This website specializes in cognitive humor. Unlike other types of humor, cognitive humor challenges an individual’s intellectual capabilities and demands high-level, abstract cognitive processing in the brain (Klesius, Laframboise, & Gaier, 1998). The following cognitive cartoon provides an example of humor that makes you think.

Cognitive jokes make us think, but they must also make us laugh. Relevance theory suggests that effective jokes have relevance to the hearer (Yus, 2012). Captain Big Idea uses cognitive cartoons on this site to poke fun at the realities of designing and teaching online courses in higher education. According to relevance theory, the more you know about online education, course design, and academia, the more you will laugh at Captain Big Idea’s cartoons.

Four Academic Uses (and a Sneaky One)

All cartoons at are free and available to share when used for educational purposes or personal enjoyment. Here are five ways to use cognitive cartoons. Four of the strategies are academic, and one is sneaky.

#1. Introduce a Topic:

Humor enables us to approach ideas in ways previously not considered (Collison, Elbaum, Haavind & Tinker, 2000). This cartoon turns the tables on skeptics of online learning. In an online forum or faculty meeting, this cartoon could launch a discussion about perceived equity and bias regarding on-campus and distance education.

#2: Check Understanding

Inside jokes tap the knowledge of a select group. If a person laughs at an inside joke, that indicates understanding. If a person doesn’t laugh, that means the joke isn’t funny…or a person doesn’t know enough to get the joke. Typically, training courses for online faculty discuss the importance of faculty providing timely and accurate feedback to their students. As part of a feedback lesson, Cartoon #2 could be posted in a discussion forum with the following prompt: “How does this cartoon relate to what you have learned about providing feedback to online students.” The subsequent discussion could extend reflection and check understanding.

#3: Build Community

Online faculty (and their families) know the demands of teaching online. In an online faculty training forum, this cartoon could serve as a springboard for learners to express their concerns about their workload, grading, student communication, and more. The cartoon can spark an exchange of ideas, tips, and solutions for managing the challenges of online teaching.

#4. Spark a Debate

Education has no controversies…or does it?

#5: Zing Somebody

Do you have colleagues who won’t listen to reason about a topic? Zing them with a cognitive cartoon. They won’t change their minds, but it’s fun watching them argue with a JPEG. Captain Big Idea provides a steady stream of fresh cartoons for your zinging pleasure.

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Berk, R.A. (2002). Humor as an instructional defibrillator: Evidence-based techniques in teaching and assessment. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing. 

Collison, G., Elbaum, B., Haavind, S., & Tinker, R. (2000). Facilitating online learning: Effective strategies for moderators. Madison, WI: Atwood Publishing. 

Schmidt, S.R. & Williams, A.R. (2001). Memory and humorous cartoons. Memory and Cognition, 29(2): 305-11.

Willard, M. (2006). Humor in the hands of seasoned Montessorians. Montessori Life, 18(2), 50-53.

Klesius, J., Laframboise, K., and Gaier, M. (1998). Humorous literature: Motivation for reluctant readers. Reading Research and Instruction, 37(4), 253-61.

Yus, F. (2012). Strategies and effects in humorous discourse: The case of jokes. Studies in Linguistics and Cognition (Section 3).

Copyright © 2019 by Thomas Royce Wilson

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