What do Difficult Challenges, Putting Learners at Risk, and Uncertainty of Outcomes Accomplish?

Approximate Reading Time: 6 minutes

Karl Kapp has outlined 8 ways to make learning more intriguing, but do they really?

While I agree with some of them, I see others as decidedly counter-productive. It highlights a fundamental difference in perspective – a fundamental difference in the ultimate objectives for using gamification. One (Dr. Kapp’s) seeks to benefit the corporate entity first (benefiting learners is a path to this), while the other (mine) seeks to benefit the learner (full stop). One imposes things onto learners, while the other invites learners to participate. (I realize it isn’t quite as black and white as this but the distinction is an important one.)

I’ve summarized these eight game elements below, but I encourage you to read the full explanations here. I’ll add my comments at the end.

In the third installment of his blog series on gamifying your learning Karl Kapp outlines eight game elements to make learning more intriguing.

  1. Mystery
    Mystery exists when there is a gap between known and unknown information and the person experiencing the gap realizes information exists to fill that gap but they need to find it. Mystery arouses curiosity within the learner, and can motivate the learner to fill in gaps and locate discrepancies in information. When borrowing this element from games, don’t tell your learner everything; leave gaps the learner must fill.
  2. Action
    Good games start with action. Right from the beginning the player must do something. When designing learning, follow the same format. Don’t start with a list of objectives; start with the learner making a decision, moving from point A to point B or selecting a plan of action.
  3. Challenge
    Humans enjoy overcoming challenges. Learning modules need to start with a challenge. Start learning with a challenge: something that is difficult, that requires deep thinking, and that cannot be achieved by guessing.
  4. Being at risk
    When people feel something is at risk, they pay closer attention, focus their energy, and are engaged with the task at hand.
    Learning needs to be the same. Force a “question run” in which the learner must get five questions in a row right. If they miss one, they get five additional questions.
  5. Uncertainty of outcome
    Closely related to risk is putting the learner in a situation in which they can’t predict the outcome.
    In a learning module, the outcome is more certain. Add an element of chance into the learning process. Have the learner “bet” on the confidence of an answer or give him a 50/50 opportunity to get an easy or hard question. Uncertainty adds suspense, intrigue, and focuses the learner’s attention on the task at hand.
  6. Opportunity for mastery
    One thing games allow a player to do is demonstrate mastery within the game environment and, more importantly, to themselves. Give the learner a series of difficult problems, once they solve one problem, give them a visible reward like a badge and have them move on to the next difficult problem increasing the difficulty level until the final “boss” problem.
  7. Visible signs of progress
    Games let you see how you are doing.  Throughout the module, give learners visible signs of moving through the content. This can be in the form of a badge or achievement or moving to a new level or even changing the look of the player’s character when they achieve a learning objective. Provide clear evidence that progress has been made.
  8. Emotional content
    Somehow in recent years, we’ve managed to divorce instructional content from emotional context. Games do the exact opposite. It would be a breath of fresh air if our learning modules borrowed from games and put the critical element of emotion back into learning.

Source: Eight Game Elements to Make Learning More Intriguing


I’d largely agree with this, although we still have to be careful. It is possible to create a mystery that is so contrived or lame as to be counterproductive.


I don’t entirely agree. I’m all for learning by doing, but I also think that we do our learners a disservice if we don’t let them know where we are going with our instruction or training and why we want them to do the tasks we set before them. I am most decidedly not a fan of so-called ‘stealth learning‘. I’ve experienced far too many instructors whose motivations for asking me to do something were questionable, and who became defensive when I did question them. Learners – all learners – have a right to know why they are being asked to do something as well as what it’s good for. The notion of advance organizers is a good one.


Here’s where we start to seriously diverge. While I would agree that we should strive to make our lessons interesting, we should not make every lesson opening into a difficult challenge. We need to mix things up. If we convince ourselves that we have figured out the “right” formula for designing training and instruction and then follow that formula all the time it can quickly become as boring and disengaging as that boring strategy we are trying to replace. Mix it up. Start with a question, a puzzle, a mystery, a statement, or even, just a simple list of objectives.

There’s a lot to be said for making learning interesting by creating challenges, but these challenges have to be targeted just right. In the kind of classes I teach, I have people with skills and abilities all over the map. My “hard” challenge would be easy for some and impossible for others. Do I really want to repel the same portion of my class every time? Sometimes it can be a relief to go to an ‘easy’ class – one where I get spoon-fed and don’t have to think too hard. Designing effective instruction and training requires a delicate balance between the needs of the stakeholders, the needs of the learners (all of them), and the subject matter. One size doesn’t fit all.

Being at Risk

Now here’s where I seriously disagree. Actually, I think Dr. Kapp has completely misunderstood the role of risk in games. He claims that the risk of losing causes people to pay more attention in games. In real life, when something is at risk it may be true that people pay more attention, but for many (maybe even most) people, risk in real life increases stress. In education, increasing stress is almost always counter-productive. The risk in games is not real. THAT’s what makes it fun. Threatening learners with more work if they don’t get all the questions right just seems cruel to me. It’s punitive. We should not be threatening our learners with punishment, we should be recognizing accomplishment. We should not be increasing risk in learning, we need to DECREASE it. That’s what I have done in my gamified designs, and I can tell you that many of my students respond to this by actually trying harder. When I reduce the risk to them of trying something that might fail, they are actually freed to try that very thing. Punishing them for getting it wrong will have the exact opposite effect.


While I’m a big fan of adding intrigue and the occasional surprise to instruction, I really disagree with the idea that uncertainty helps in learning. True, there is sometimes uncertainty in the solution to a problem. There are, for example, many kinds of problems, especially social ones, where there is no known solution and where we can’t be certain that our solution is actually going to make things better. But that’s uncertainty that comes from the complexity of real life. That’s not asking people to gamble with their marks. Asking people to gamble with their marks takes control of their learning out of their hands. We should be doing everything we can to give control of learning BACK to our learners, and to help them learn to manage it. We should not turn success into a course into some kind of crap shoot. I realize this is likely an exaggeration of what Dr. Kapp meant, but while intermittent reinforcement can increase motivation to try, we know from classic psychological experiments that random punishment can result in people simply giving up.

Opportunity for mastery

I’m all for providing opportunities for my students to show mastery, but here again I don’t think we should be following the arch-typical game progression where each level is harder than the last. Much learning simply doesn’t work that way. Just like we shouldn’t start every lesson with a challenge, we also shouldn’t make our courses be a linear progression from easy to hard. Can you imaging how a student would feel if they came across something that was particularly challenging for them early on in the course (it happens, trust me), and they already knew that all they had to look forward to is for things to get worse?

We can create unlockable content and we can create boss battles, but they don’t have to follow a simplistic easy to hard trajectory. In my current course, my boss battle is my final exam. It is not the hardest thing they must do – it is merely the last thing, AND, if they have earned sufficient points before that, they can skip it entirely. THAT’s motivating. I give my students many ways to earn their grade. Only a few are required.

Visible signs of progress

This one I agree with wholeheartedly. We should give them meaningful feedback, we should do it frequently, and we should let students see where they stand any time they want.

Emotional content

Yes, it is true that games encourage emotional content, but games sometimes encourage very negative emotion – even violent ones. Here again, teaching is real life, while games are not. Also – and this is VERY important to remember – games are voluntary; training is not. We must be very (VERY) careful about the way we include emotional content. Unless you know the backgrounds of your learners, you have no idea what kinds of triggers you might be hitting. Creating lessons that involve genuine emotional connections can be very valuable. Adding emotion to get a rise out of your learners is pretty risky.


Part of the reason that Instructional Systems Design is so popular with many designers is its promise of a formulaic process for creating ‘good’ instruction. Unfortunately, just like all the other systematic design methods (such as software engineering), the creating of good designs is more dependent on the experience and skills of the designer than on the method.


What do you think? Comments welcome.

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