In focus: competition in learning

The amount of times I am asked about introducing competition in learning, is quite staggering. It seems that gamification of learning is by default associated with introducing competition, especially through the shape of leaderboards with learners on them. When I get asked about introducing a leaderboard or competition in a learning environment, my first question is always why? What are you trying to achieve with it?

Most people talking about competition in learning have not thought through the real objectives they have with the competition. People with an educational background will nearly all say that competition brings along more negatives than positives. For me personally it brings out a very strong reaction, against competition. Personally the only leaderboard one should see in learning related gamification is for content, not for people.

Imagine an average learner who is a slower learner in some subjects in school, faced with a learning competition around retention of information in one of the subjects they struggle with. The mere introduction of competition enhances their levels of anxiety of being seen to be stupid on a league table. It also reduces their learning effectiveness. An open relaxed mind can take on more information than a stressed anxious one, which is already trying to defend itself. Now imagine the same dynamic in the workplace, an otherwise smart individual who is well respected by peers, at the bottom of a leaderboard on the learning platform for all to see. Think of the impact for that individual on their own self-esteem and secondly the added perception this now creates with their peers and colleagues.

In most corporate education settings, the learning management system will provide a leaderboard based on completion of courses. If you want to create a company culture where ‘ticking boxes’ is considered learning, then by all means stick with this approach. However completion of an online course tells you nothing. In fact I would argue that most adults only learn what they need in the moment, ideally even as and when they need it and after that lose interest in the additional materials. I know I have started courses and only took the module that was of interest to me and then left the rest, it meant my needs were satisfied and I increased my skills or competencies where I felt I needed it most.

I am a total believer that there is always more to learn, with rapid innovation and increased demands on both time and ability this trend will not change in the near future. Great gamification gives learners the option to create their own path to mastery, set preferences and measure against those and become better as an individual. Beating your personal best being a healthy measure and getting the results you were aiming for as the next.

Competition against colleagues by default encourages holding on to information in order to beat the next person, winners or league leaders gaining and lower ranked individuals often taking a personal self-esteem drop and facing a potential negative perception by colleagues. By making it then even compulsory to take part or including it in the performance managements system that only top 10 ranked individuals will do, adds even more to the current workday pressures.

Competition is useful if the best or those up for a challenge can voluntarily opt in to a short term knowledge based test. If a company culture is completely set up by ranks and levels, then also here an element of competition may come natural to the recruited staff. I am thinking about defence forces for example. In most other context team challenges where people have to collaborate to achieve and win, are more valuable than individual competition. Benchmark indicators are useful to see how you as an individual fare in comparison with peers.

If you are working with a learning management system that includes leaderboards, then insure that those are set first and foremost to measure content ratings. You may include metrics such as relevance, quality, star ratings, etc. The next way to use leaderboards would be in a relative sense, as a benchmark to give an individual user perspective. Other than that make it optional to display your learning activities publicly or not.

Learning as an activity is most of the time meant to increase our confidence and abilities. Competition is putting those abilities to the acid test of “am I good enough”. In my view this is often forgotten in shallow gamification design. I would question my clients about their reason for adding the competitive factors to ensure it doesn’t take away from the learning experience and achieves the desired results.

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