E-Learning, ELearning, Game Design, Gamification, Gaming, Instructional Design, Training Design
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Using the Zeigarnik effect in learning – how objectives can dramatically increase engagement!

In this post I want to discuss a term called the Zeigarnik effect. By the end of this post my aim is that you will have a new way to think about displaying objectives or goals in your courses and not just considering them standard introductory slide fodder. Objectives can play a large part in motivation and engagement throughout a course, but we have to ensure that they are used, crafted and portrayed effectively.

As a small warning before we begin, this post is a little more academic than my usual posts but there is still a lot of value in its content. I’ve stripped back a lot of the dull academia, so whilst there are still references for the writers, the language should still be in an enjoyable and relatable style.

The Zeigarnik effect is a psychological phenomenon that is used extensively in entertainment games. It states that people remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks (McKinney, 1935). This significantly increases the drive to complete tasks. In games, the Zeigarnik effect is typically applied by showing players a visual list of the tasks they have yet to complete. This keeps them motivated to work on those tasks. Feedback on these tasks may be displayed as a percentage of their progress toward a final goal. For instance if a player was tasked with collecting 10 items then as each item is acquired a counter increments and displays their progress.

Here are some examples from popular video games.

BATMAN™: ARKHAM KNIGHT_20150623134334


World of Warcraft

World of Warcraft

Clash of Clans

Clash of Clans

Notice how all of the examples used here show incomplete quests as the primary display, they also clearly indicate how far you have progressed with each of the quests by displaying the number of objectives you’ve gained towards completion. Batman uses a % complete progress meter, World of Warcraft uses a x/x model as does Clash of Clans. Another display feature in the latter two is showing rewards, it is clearly shown in both examples what the reward would be for completing that particular quest.

The Zeigarnik effect impacts motivation and when applied correctly, can promote flow by both making the goals more clear and providing feedback on their progress.

Designers should almost always use some variation of this technique. Basically, you are creating a direct tie between goals and feedback that is incredibly motivating. To make the best use of this technique, some care is required. Try to use tasks that focus more heavily on developing the skills of the player (player skill) rather than modifying the abilities of the avatar (avatar skill). The best way to do this is to make sure the tasks emphasize skills that you want the players to learn. This allows players to achieve real progress by overcoming challenges that focus on the desired learning objectives, instead of just wasting time incrementing virtual pixels. As each small sub-task is achieved, the feedback will then closely relate to the player’s skill.

The World of Warcraft system pictured above is a great example of how to apply this. The WoW quest log shows tasks you haven’t yet completed. Because the tasks stand out as incomplete, the Zeigarnik effect encourages you to finish them. Further, remember that the WoW quests are linked to specific skills and character leveling properties that players should be practicing anyway. The result is that the Zeigarnik effect motivates players to complete their WoW quests, which leads to an improvement of real player skills and progression of their character.

So let’s think about the practical application to our learning projects. Displaying objectives in a similar way to the previous gaming examples is a fantastic way of immediately implementing the Zeigarnik effect.

One option is to have a notebook or area the learner can refer to and check back on their progress. The effect causes the learner to voluntarily check their progress having a ‘click to hide’ function helps to keep the interface clear but the objectives easily accessible. It’s important to make objectives easily visible, as this is one of the key aspects of the effect; visibility of incomplete tasks is going to be the pull that keeps learner checking back in with objectives and actively progressing through the module.

Another option is to adopt an approach that is very popular in mobile apps. When you load up an app, especially a freemium app such as Clash of Clans you are usually presented with a daily quest or challenge to complete. I’m sure like me you’ve logged on to an app just to complete the daily challenge and then log off again. This is the power of the Zeigarnik effect in action but how can we harness that in E-Learning? We have to focus on the design of these quests to create feelings of association; the implementation of a daily quest system is something unrealistic in the current state of content creation. If we can create learning objectives with the same look and feel as these app objectives we can help to increase engagement through association.

The last element we can tie in to objective display is showing if anything unlocks after completion, in the WoW and CoC games the rewards for completing quests are prominently displayed. In E-Learning we can do the same by allowing new areas of our module to become unlocked after completing a certain objective, this could then be displayed to give the learner increased incentive (as long as the content is interesting and worth unlocking!)

I’m going to end this post here but I hope this has given you a new way to think about objectives and the way they can be displayed on screen. Although the logic behind dynamic objectives or quest logs is something a little more difficult to think about for the average E-Learning project, with simple changes to the look and feel and placement of objectives it is possible to have the same effect on the learner.



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