Struggle as a learning method

In most online learning courses, struggle is not built in by intent. Yet in real life, the biggest lessons have come through periods or moments of struggle. Struggling to get to the next level in a game, makes the player consider different strategies or brings into consciousness where they are going wrong or right.

Remember the last time you faced a struggle, where you felt at one point or other that you may not make it through in your usual easy fashion. How did you work your way out in the end?

We always have options, we either learn how to deal with the situation, we find help from others that have gone before or we choose a completely different path. Either way it teaches us something rightly or wrongly. Experiences have taught us most of our skills. We may even learn about our emotional responses to struggle itself, which can range from resourcefulness to creativity to frustration and anger to freezing and indecision. Again the emotional response usually adds a dimension to the struggle and when we learn to recognise the response we can take corrective action if the said response isn’t actually helpful in this situation.

In my earlier business I had a coach, who every time I got stuck on something asked me to write out a list of 20 ways of overcoming the struggle. He said include all the illegal, unethical stuff, just brain dump options without filter. By going through a struggle in this mindset, you keep options open and typically a legal and ethical option does come to light. His advice was then action 1 of the suggestions, which you are willing to live by. In games we can often see players take to rather drastic measures to overcome struggles all within the constraints of the rules of the game.

I do find it fascinating however that when we look at designing learning experiences, that a natural level of struggle is not built in by intent in the majority of programs. As a former corporate trainer, I used to have challenges built into my programs. They didn’t always give me the best popular marks on a the happy sheet (technical term for training evaluation form at the end of a live class), but I did receive feedback that I made people think and reflect on their own behaviour in relation to a subject matter. In online learning we have the same opportunity, yet especially in the corporate sector we see it as disruptive or potentially losing people because it is too hard. The irony is, you probably lose them because it’s too easy and boring instead.

Struggle is how problem solving behaviours are triggered. In most organisations and for most roles that is a valuable skill. So in my view it is a duty of the learning design teams to build in struggle as a learning method to have your people hone their problem solving skills. Most of use choose to play games in our spare time or in our thinking time, meaning we voluntarily opt in to taking challenges and overcoming obstacles. The game type doesn’t matter, because all kinds of games involve some element of challenge. Challenges you overcome in a game, may not have the same life changing consequences as you may experience with real life problems, but they hone a similar skill.

In gamification design, I find it important to build in challenge in order to trigger the resourcefulness for individuals and if appropriate to create a relevant reward environment. Something you need to work harder for and struggle for, you will appreciate a lot more after you have overcome it. I distinctly remember finishing my firs marathon, whereas I can only vaguely remember my first 5k race.

In a recent learning related gamification project, a player was struggling to overcome a specific learning level. I could see the determination of getting through it increase as he re-took the module. He did after 3 individual tries start to consult others and together they made it. The module was short enough for re-takes to take place quickly. The relief when he then managed to unlock the next step was great.

How will you be integrating struggle as a learning method into your gamification designs?

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