On Winning

“Education” and “competition” are not usually words that are associated with each other. However, competition is an innate motivator, and humans by nature enjoy winning.

Certain aspects of winning are universal to all competitive activities, including learning. A recent Newsweek article about winning provides insight into how instructional designers can create more engaging training. The author notes that winning by itself is not the most compelling impetus, but that winning while a competitor loses is more satisfying (this would seem obvious to anyone with siblings).

Rather than using  a “task completion” metaphor, instructional designers should use a gaming and winning metaphor when designing training. Rote tasks can be made more engaging if instead of simply reading and reacting in a safe environment, the learner triumphs over a tension-filled activity. Similarly, you can provide competitive opportunities with other learners virtually.

In many K-12 situations “safe” learning environments take out so much of the excitement of competition and rating. You have an obligation to make sure every beginner learner succeeds, but you also have an obligation to groom the special talents that individuals have as well.

How do you turn cognitive tasks into challenge?

Learning objectives can remain the same, but it’s the way that it is presented that changes. You don’t have to completely redesign your training to make it more challenging. Consider these simple ideas:

Allow learners to be wrong

  • Allow and penalize for incorrect answers. If learners can complete a course by merely clicking through content, they have little reason to engage with the content. Activities that allow for “failure” can create “good tension”.

Add variable scoring

  • Reward learners for learning more difficult material by acknowledging that all content is not equal.

Add timed components for some activities

  • While not appropriate for all activities, it does create a feeling of tension.

Allow for replay opportunities

  • This reduces some of the negative aspects of the capability for “failure” allowed by other competitive components.

Create opportunities to share leaderboard scores outside of the learning environment

  • Rather than learning taking place within a silo, authentic learning events can bleed into the larger community.

A simple multiple choice game can be either boring or competitive with a simple design tweak:


  • The learner answers a question and then views the answers tagged with “correct” and “incorrect” feedback.


  • The learner answers a question. They receive variable points based upon the correctness of the answer, difficulty of the challenge and the speed with which they answered. They are then shown their score relative to other learners. The feedback is also contextual and continues the gameplay.

Take some lessons from this short quiz. How many times did you feel compelled to play?

A version of this post appeared on The Total Learner Experience

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