ATD Blog

What Do You Know: Should Learning Be Easy and Fun?

Thursday, July 20, 2017

A few people have recently asked me if I would tackle the issue of making learning easy and fun. The problem I have with the word fun is that it means different things to different people. My husband, an electrical engineer, hates when his work-related e-learning courses try to be fun. He has things to do and not enough time to do them. So, he wants them to simply offer what he needs in the quickest way possible.

Should we aim to make learning easier and, when possible, fun? Before I answer the question, let’s see where you weigh in on this issue. Then I’ll discuss what research says.

Question: Should we intentionally design learning so it is easy?( Select the best answer.)

A. Of course! All learning can and should be easy and fun. If it isn’t, it’s the designer’s fault. 

B. All learning cannot be easy and fun. Some learning will naturally be difficult. 

C. I’m not sure. I think it’s possible that both are true.

Elizabeth Bjork and Robert Bjork’s (2011) work help us understand that our intuition doesn’t help us understand the best ways to teach or learn. Intuition is often wrong about what works for long-term remembering and use. As a result, we are regularly misled by what appears to work and by what we think people will enjoy. But the long run is where it needs to work.  


One of the most desirable training outcomes is transfer of trained skills to the workplace. Transfer can mean a lot of things, but one of the most important for organizational learning is that what a person learns in training accurately transfers to their work on the job. Numerous studies have shown that this kind of transfer is more difficult than most realize, but we can improve the odds of transfer when what people do in training matches their work tasks as closely as possible. Healy, Wohldmann, Sutton, and Bourne’s (2006) research showed that transfer happens best when the conditions of training are the same as the conditions of application. Let’s consider how this might work.


When I was in my 20s, I trained and then worked as an optician for many years. I loved the work because it combined math, science, and other skills. My optician training absolutely matched what I would be doing on the job. We learned background terminology (myopia, presbyopia, and more) and concepts such as how to select lens materials, take correct measurements, and many other tasks.

My main point here is that my training did not seem designed to be fun, but it did seem designed to transfer to the workplace. The optometrists and opticians who trained us made sure we did exactly what we would do as opticians. I was engaged the entire time, because I wanted the skills and was dedicated to becoming not only proficient, but certified (which meant taking a certification test and being recertified on an ongoing basis). Now, 30-some years later, I still remember most of the concepts, though the tools used have advanced.

Many fun methods can be job-oriented, such as serious games and scenarios. But other fun methods clearly aren’t, so there may be concerns about transfer because we know that training methods most like the workplace situation are likely to transfer best. 


Part of the answer to this question has to do with cognitive load, and I’ve written about cognitive load before. Cognitive load refers to how much information must be kept in working memory while thinking through or performing a task. Memory cannot hold onto or process very much information at a time. When people are new to a topic or task or it is complex, working memory is easily overloaded.

When we teach people complex information or tasks, we must get rid of nonrequired load (such as nonvaluable graphics and extra content). Extra elements and content lead to overload. Here’s an example where something I designed led to an overload situation. I built a Concentration-like game (find the matched card pairs) and my game elements clearly made it hard to learn much of anything. My game was a dud.


My optician training was rarely easy. But because the training circumstances were very much like the work circumstances, after training, I was able to do trained skills on my first day of work as I opened a new retail optical store. When I received a prescription with added power for progressive lenses, I knew how to do the mathematical calculations. I could use the lensometer to check in all glasses. The hardest part of the job for me was hiring my fist associate, because I had never learned to manage another person. Transferring skills to other types of responsibilities, as in this situation, is another type of transfer. I mostly learned by making mistakes and was lucky that Lynne, my first hire, was willing to tell me when I did things wrong.

The Bjorks explain that what works for learning in the short run often fails in the long run. To train for encoding into long-term memory and retrieval from long-term memory, many of the training strategies we should use are actually harder for people. But these methods work best for long-term use.

So, the best answer is B. But C has merit as well. I absolutely adored learning how to be an optician even though learning was neither fun nor easy. I imagine that if you think about some of the things you have learned, you have struggled as well. As with exercise, the phrase no pain no gain has validity. Our brain encodes things that are more difficult more deeply in many cases. I will discuss what the Bjorks found to be “desirable difficulties” and what others have found to be less desirable difficulties while learning in an upcoming article. 


Bjork, E.L., and R.A. Bjork. 2011. “Making Things Hard on Yourself, but in a Good Way: Creating Desirable Difficulties to Enhance Learning.” In Psychology and the Real World: Essays Illustrating Fundamental Contributions to Society, 56-64.

Healy, A.F., E.L. Wohldmann, E.M. Sutton, and L.E. Bourne Jr. 2006. “Specificity Effects in Training and Transfer of Speeded Responses.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition 32(3): 534-546.

Mayer, R.E., and R. Moreno. 2003. “Nine Ways to Reduce Cognitive Load in Multimedia Learning.” Educational Psychologist 38(1): 43-52.

About the Author

Patti Shank, PhD, CPT, is a learning designer and analyst at Learning Peaks, an internationally recognized consulting firm that provides learning and performance consulting. She is an often-requested speaker at training and instructional technology conferences, is quoted frequently in training publications, and is the co-author of Making Sense of Online Learning, editor of TheOnline Learning Idea Book, co-editor of The E-Learning Handbook, and co-author of Essential Articulate Studio ’09.

Patti was the research director for the eLearning Guild, an award-winning contributing editor forOnline Learning Magazine, and her articles are found in eLearning Guild publications, Adobe’s Resource Center, Magna Publication’s Online Classroom, and elsewhere.

Patti completed her PhD at the University of Colorado, Denver, and her interests include interaction design, tools and technologies for interaction, the pragmatics of real world instructional design, and instructional authoring. Her research on new online learners won an EDMEDIA (2002) best research paper award. She is passionate and outspoken about the results needed from instructional design and instruction and engaged in improving instructional design practices and instructional outcomes.

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