As I often say: I get it. I know we struggle for some way—any way—to make content more fun, to lighten the mood, to get learners’ attention, to do something with dry content, compliance stuff, technical material … I get it. And I’m all about using humor where we can. But sometimes I’ve seen efforts go off the rails. There should be no shame implied or included in feedback given to the learner.

The bottom line: Once the learner feels shamed, or stupid, or humiliated, any chance of learning is pretty much blocked. Here are some real examples I’ve seen, most of them reworked to protect identity.  They really speak for themselves. Figure 1 introduces the organization’s disciplinary process, touted as a process designed to “improve, not punish.”

Worker wearing a dunce cap.

Figure 1: Image suggests workers are stupid—and children

Figure 2 shows a screen from an online tutorial about equal employment opportunity (EEO). The kicker: this screen introduced the start of an open-book quiz asking learners to find answers in a policy. How a learner would “cheat” is unclear. And honestly: Would you cheat on an EEO quiz?

Graphic suggests learner can’t be trusted

Figure 2: The graphic signals belief that the learner is not trustworthy

Beware when attempts at levity shift to revealing attitudes toward the audience. The worst part about the example in Figure 2? I knew the SME who insisted on including it. She really did think this little of her audience. (She’s the same one mentioned in my February 2015 column: In another module on employment law her only image was repeated use of a stop sign, indicating: “I know you’re going to do this wrong so I’ll just stop you now.” Intentional or not, we can send messages to the learners that will interfere with learning.

Feedback failures

Good feedback helps a learner learn. What about the example shown in Figure 3? Does it do anything to help the learner? Does the giant red “F” add anything? And will this worker be encouraged to “play more”? Likely not.

Feedback that suggests the learner is always wrong.

Figure 3: Feedback like this does nothing to help the learner learn

The big question with these examples: How will the learner respond? If the material turns them off, scolds them, or is condescending, we’ve put up a new barrier between learner and learning.

User Experience Failures

The problem extends beyond learning content proper to issues with the user experience itself. We’ve all been frustrated by things like unclear navigation, directions that didn’t make sense, input of text or number or something that didn’t “take.” See this tweet from Brandon Gordon: @TheBeeGordon: “No one likes resetting passwords. Shaming users by telling them to ‘Try and remember it this time’ is definitely not making the experience any better. ”#uxwriting

Sarcasm does not guide learners.

Figure 4: Sarcastic comments do not guide the learner appropriately

So: I know it can be a challenge to make learning experiences better. But there are some fairly easy ways of ensuring we don’t make them any worse. The easiest way is to adopt a policy that says, “There shall be no shame included or implied in the feedback to the learner.”