When Microlearning Met Gamification
By Tanja Schaetz-Kruft, Gilles Montagnon, Lauren Gibbons Paul | 12 min read
Ah, training – everyone loves to hate you.
Providence, a US$25 billion not-for-profit healthcare provider network, was struggling a few years ago to make its annual compliance training more palatable to its 120,000 medical professionals and office workers. Mandated by federal and state law, the skills review training covered subjects such as protecting patient record privacy and handling hazardous biowaste. But employees dreaded the exercise. They didn’t appreciate having to carve out the time to complete a 60- to 90-minute online program. That chunk of time, multiplied across the huge employee base, cost roughly $4 million per year in lost productivity. And employees tended to quickly forget the subtler elements.
“Everyone said they didn’t like long and boring compliance courses,” says Johnny Hamilton, senior design and innovation consultant for Providence.
Providence’s learning department decided to test a different approach based on microlearning – short bursts of learning content delivered in the moment – rather than rolling out another heavyweight module on its traditional training system. The department also added some carefully chosen game-play aspects to increase learner engagement.
This combination yielded dramatic results for the business: a 61% cost reduction, even factoring in the expense of a new platform. Employees were also happier and retained their knowledge better over time, Hamilton says.
The Providence example illustrates the promising intersection of two trends in training: microlearning and gamification. Microlearning teaches in the moment, with short chunks of information that are reinforced at regular intervals to maximize retention. Gamification uses elements such as self-paced learning and various rewards to induce learners to complete, and even enjoy, training they would otherwise try to avoid.
Both trends were well underway before the pandemic, as classic in-person training declined and then went dark during the stay-home period. McKinsey estimated that one-half of planned in-person employee training programs were canceled by the end of June 2020. One imagines that percentage has only grown higher since then, as companies have delayed or scrapped plans to return to the office. The Wall Street Journal’s reporting confirmed that, whether by choice or necessity, companies are turning to technology to deliver more enjoyable and effective training.
To that end, the merging of microlearning with gamification elements is proving powerful. As Providence managers learned, combining the two must be done thoughtfully and with an eye firmly fixed on business benefits. The good news is that if you get this right, trainees will learn more in less time. That payoff can accrue to the bottom line in terms of better employee performance in addition to reducing lost productivity.
To understand why these trends are so happy together, let’s first look at their backstories and what makes each of them tick.
Microlearning: Expert at breaking up seeks more memorable experiences
Many research studies have demonstrated that we learn better in small bits related to a task at hand that are reinforced with repetition.
The Ebbinghaus Curve of Forgetting, formulated in the 1880s by a German psychologist, first quantified the common-sense concept often phrased as “use it or lose it”: the more time that passes between training and putting the concepts to use, the higher the likelihood that the material will be forgotten. In fact, up to 90% of learning will be forgotten within two months, according to Hermann Ebbinghaus. (The familiar term “learning curve” stems from his work.)
The antidote to forgetting is “spaced” learning that presents concepts at regular intervals to solidify retention. The formal practice of business training through small chunks of information presented within the flow of work has gained more traction in recent years; the term microlearning seems to have appeared around 2008.
The trick to designing compelling microlearning experiences is to remind learners that information awaits their attention but also to enable them to maintain autonomy by not being too pushy and intrusive, according to Dr. Sebastian Deterding, professor of digital creativity at the University of York in the UK.
Successful microlearning also contains measures of feedback and progress that lead to a sense of mastery, he says. In the case of Providence, employees can see if they’ve answered each question correctly and have the peace of mind of knowing that they can test out of additional training if they get the answer right. This also increases the learners’ sense of self-determination and makes them more inclined to continue until they’re done.
On its own, microlearning is used effectively in environments where people need in-the-moment training and advice on how to handle a situation – and don’t require any special enticements to access the material. One example is instructing field service personnel on how to repair equipment, whether that’s a power transformer, a cable modem, or a home healthcare device. The repair person is inherently motivated to access the training material because the skills and knowledge gained are valuable to that person’s job, success, and advancement.
When the learner has less intrinsic motivation, microlearning sometimes needs a partner. And that’s where gamification is a good match.
Gamification: Social, engaging technique loves to motivate others
The name might suggest that gamification is just about fun. In truth, it’s about adding elements of competition or reward and motivating increased engagement with the content or task. Sometimes this means using artifacts recognizable from the world of video and online games, such as badges, storytelling, and progress dashboards. But in a business context, gamification often means individual and team leaderboards and social features such as the ability to add a comment or question to a piece of content.
The key scenarios for applying game mechanics are those in which the learners are less intrinsically motivated to access the content. Gamification elements work best in making unappealing tasks more engaging to more learners. Returning to the example of field repair technicians, their motivation is likely to be lower for training material that feels obscure or punitive – like something to be checked off and gotten out of the way instead of something that builds valuable skills. Gamification can be a spoonful of sugar for tough medicine.
Another way to think of gamification in a business context is in terms of behavior modification. In 2007, B. Price Kerfoot, an associate professor of surgery and educational researcher at Harvard Medical School, noticed that medical students were not retaining their lessons over time. He became interested in more effective methods for teaching those doctors-in-training. Kerfoot conducted dozens of peer-reviewed experiments to test the efficacy of microlearning and gamification in changing behavior.
One example: he tested the premise that “spaced education” is an effective method to improve retention, specifically in continuing medical education (CME). This experiment incorporated game mechanics, with questions expiring if not answered in time to create a sense of urgency and questions retiring if answered correctly to create a sense of mastery. These are behavioral modification techniques that aim to create a habit of sticking with the training through completion. Based on successful experiment results, Kerfoot cofounded the microlearning platform company Qstream in 2008.
With gamification, you are able to move a piece of training from someone’s ‘to-do’ list to their ‘want-to-do’ list.
— Philipp Reinartz, CEO, Pfeffermind Consulting GmbH
Even these relatively buttoned-up game mechanics make training more enjoyable. Gamification helps motivate people to do something they don’t like to do, says Philipp Reinartz, CEO of Pfeffermind Consulting GmbH.
“With gamification, you are able to move a piece of training from someone’s ‘to-do’ list to their ‘want-to-do’ list,” he says. The advantage for companies is keeping their employees motivated and attracted to necessary tasks that they didn’t like before.
By contrast, when employees are already motivated to interact with the content, as in the example of field service technicians gaining skills needed in the moment, gamification can be unnecessary overkill – an interruption rather than a help. Some executives became leery of gamification when it was misapplied in some environments where it wasn’t needed or when it was poorly designed, rewarding the wrong behaviors. Furthermore, not all trainees respond to the same incentives. So successful gamification requires careful thought and design.
A study conducted by research partners, including the University of York, illustrates these dynamics. The project followed more than 80 participants as they learned how to write computer code using either Khan Academy or Codecademy. “We wanted to look at how they interacted with badges, for example, and other kinds of virtual achievements that you can post on your user profile,” says Deterding.
The study found that people who saw these game elements as complementary to their personal goals would respond in ways that improved how well they learned. They progressed from task to task as the course designers intended.
However, some participants reacted to the gamification elements in a very different way. “They would simply do whatever was the easiest way to get the badge or reward. They would grind, they would repeat the same activity, just to get as many of those badges as they could,” Deterding recalls. This was the opposite of what an instructional designer would want to happen. So many gamified elements are not designed well enough to steer people toward one way of understanding things and engaging with them rather than another. “There are loads of ways in which these things can backfire,” he says.
Count this as a lesson heeded by Providence when it sought to upgrade its compliance training.
So happy together
Providence rolled out its new compliance program in March 2020. Making its people happier was the overarching goal, but beyond avoiding employee misery, executives were looking to reduce cost and decrease risk. To hit all those goals, they needed the right mix of microlearning and gamification.
During a two-month period, employees were invited to go through the 52-question program on their own schedules at their own pace – wherever and whenever they wanted, on their phones or desktops – increasing their sense of autonomy and therefore their willingness to do it. The system, built on the Qstream platform, fed the learner one question at a time. Getting a question right meant the employee would never see it again, whereas if they got it wrong, the system would present it again during another session.
People loved it because we gave them time back. This took about 66% less time than taking the regular course.
— Johnny Hamilton, Senior Design and Innovation Consultant, Providence
However, the training team omitted certain gamification options that are available in the platform. For example, they decided not to include leaderboards; with 120,000 people participating, this might not add motivation for a high proportion of trainees. They also turned off comments from participants, which in the case of the rigorous compliance topic seemed more likely to add distracting noise rather than helpful signal.
Hamilton says that results show the new course strikes a good balance. “People loved it because we gave them time back. This took about 66% less time than taking the regular course,” says Hamilton.
“So far, they are seeing that initial proficiency on this topic is up,” says Hamilton. Consider how significant the impact could be for another topic, such as procedures for handling healthcare patients’ blood. “Low proficiency rates increase risk. Someone might get hurt. With the granularity of the data, you can target interventions – who and where and what to reinforce,” he says. Risk managers welcome the level of detail and specificity. “They always want to find the pain points.”
Employees are also retaining more information. One way the system helps accomplish this is allowing managers to see which questions are frequently missed so that they can do stand-up coaching or create additional materials to shore up team members’ knowledge on those topics. For example, the compliance manager was able to drill down into a dashboard and see that only 33% of learners were proficient at correctly working with patients who have service animals. So she created an awareness campaign that included an FAQ and a Webinar to reinforce key concepts.
Bonus point: the ideas behind microlearning and gamification aren’t limited to training.
Reinartz has seen gamification elements used effectively for internal corporate communications, which are often consumed in short bursts when the employee has a free moment. “We help the company reach employees in a way such that they really like to interact with this information,” he says. This entices employees to consume small pieces at a time but with clear progress metrics that provide a sense of accomplishment.
He also notes a German bank that created an animated iPad-based game used in the interview process for contact-center job applicants. “Instead of having a first interview, you play a game for half an hour or so. And we can track certain things while you play this game,” he says. These include how fast job prospects think and how astute their instincts are, in addition to the accuracy of their responses.
“The gamified environment actually was quite close to what they were supposed to do later if they got the job,” says Reinartz.
Ready, player one? Here’s what to do.
Gamified microlearning moments hold much promise for getting people to consume, retain, and apply the content you need them to. Here are key takeaways for getting the best results.
For new ideas, play around. Today a very visible gamified learning example is language-learning platform Duolingo, whose use doubled during early pandemic lockdowns and is still rising. It’s not primarily a corporate application, but it provides plenty of ideas that companies might adapt. Motivation is important here; while many people want to learn a foreign language, generally it is not something they have to do. The app’s achievement indicators, rewards, points, and signposts indicating where to go next – its very structure, or “scaffolding,” as Deterding says – make the experience clear and compelling.
Right-size the game elements. Microlearning is widely applicable and can work solo when trainees are highly motivated. Gamification is best added when motivation is mixed or missing. Too much gamification can interfere or distract a motivated learner.
Test and watch for bad behavior. Early users of a training course will quickly show whether the design is incenting more learning or whether participants are “gaming” the system for rewards.
Focus on business results. Make sure your business leaders understand this is fundamentally about working, not playing, which some will perceive as wasting time. Speaking of the iPad app, Reinartz says, “We saw a manager ask his employees not to play ‘that game.’ He didn’t understand that they were actually learning.”
In fact, for discussion with very senior executives, Hamilton recommends leaving out the terms microlearning and gamification entirely. “You have to keep it very business-focused. A description of the system’s bells and whistles will fall on deaf executive ears,” he says.
“What matters is increased performance and reduced risk. Then at the end, you say, ‘Oh, by the way, it does gamification, and everyone is really happy about it.’”
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