Did you know that some teachers aren’t allowed to use red pens for making corrections? This concept has been circulating for about a decade now. Red means something is wrong, which can be seen as “too aggressive” and that might hurt someone’s feelings. So teachers are supposed to use a different color, like purple. Doesn’t this sound like every boss you’ve ever had? More concerned about hurting your feelings than telling you you’re wrong. Much like purple marker, coddling users in your eLearning course isn’t going to prepare them for much.

Sure, people don’t want to be told all day how much they suck at taking your eLearning course. But failure is capable of teaching people in ways success cannot. Additionally, if we’re only giving people “challenges” that we know they can succeed at, can they really be called challenges? Don’t be afraid to push your learners, but make sure you do it in the right way. Let’s look at the benefits of failure, and how to provide learners with the right way to fail.

Knowledge Check as “Motivator”

The basis for this article actually stemmed from a *friendly debate* with a client. They read some article that claimed “if learners answer questions correctly, it’ll boost morale and motivate them to continue learning.” This lead to the client wanting all the knowledge checks we were creating to be obvious, “motivating” questions.

First of all, you shouldn’t be using knowledge checks as a primary means of motivating learners. They should be used to…uh…check knowledge. Depending on where they come in your course, how they’re implemented, etc., they could BE motivating. But their existence should not be solely as a motivational tool. On the contrary, things like the course design, presentation strategy, the content you select for the course, and engagement level of the activities should provide the motivation.

Failure Doesn’t Impede Success

One of the fears people have is that if learners fail, it will be an impediment to their progress and success. This is about as true as the earth being flat (yes, I just called out all the flat-earthers out there). On the contrary, the right kind of failure can actually be a successful motivator. But note: I did say the RIGHT kind. If all you do is frustrate your learners, then that’s a problem.

Great game design has that “one more try” aspect. You can find this in anything from mobile games on your phone to ticket games at Chuck E. Cheese’s. Optimally, learning failure should utilize the same emotions. One place to see this is in well-written branching scenarios. Choices lead to consequences, which by the end, result in different outcomes. The best ones make you want to try again to get a better ending. But you don’t need a sophisticated learning game to use this concept. You just need to be fair and compelling. Let’s get into more about how to (and not to) do this.

Writing Good Quality Questions is HARD

First and foremost, writing good questions is challenging. Asking a question and providing the right answer is easy. But asking the question in the right way, and providing realistic incorrect choices is what takes all the work. Questions and answer choices need to be realistic. I mean no disrespect to any Instructional Designers out there, but using obviously fake and allegedly humorous incorrect options isn’t benefiting anyone.

Last weekend, a group of us went to an open mic night at a comedy club. It was super fun, but most of the jokes were brutal! I mean amazing, cringe-worthy awesomeness. But crashing and burning is more fun to watch in a comedy club than it is in an eLearning course. It made me appreciate how hard it is to write funny jokes. And these were people who were aspiring to be stand-up comedians. So why do so many IDs think it’s a good idea to make “funny” choices in multiple-choice questions? Not only are they not funny, but they’re robbing learners from the benefits of a well-crafted question.

If you want to inject humor into your course, I won’t object to that. But do it in the content, or as irony within the setup of a certain scenario. When it comes to writing questions, don’t waste your opportunities. Obviously pay attention to the question and how it’s asked. But particularly focus on your incorrect responses, because providing genuinely compelling incorrect answers is WAY harder.

Proper Feedback is Critical

An underlying premise of the “failure is OK” perspective is that questions and their potential responses are a teaching strategy. This puts added importance on the feedback for both correct and incorrect responses. “You failed, you suck” is not what you’re going for here. This strategy relies on robust feedback that explains why certain answers are right and why others are wrong.

There are many ways to handle Q&A feedback, and a lot of this decision depends on how you structure your questions. If you’re creating a quick quiz interaction, you may want users to get only one attempt at the correct answer. In this case, the correct answer should explain why it’s right. The wrong answers should not only reveal the right answer (and why it’s right) but they should also explain why they’re wrong. Many IDs skip this part.

You see, making decisions in the real world is one part selecting the right choice, and one part not selecting the wrong choice. If I’m on the job and I can’t remember what I’m supposed to do, wouldn’t you prefer I at least remember a couple things I’m NOT supposed to do?

If you’re planning a somewhat more robust interaction, you may want users to try more than once to get the correct answer. In these cases, “try again” isn’t the best option. The ideal feedback would explain why the current answer is wrong, and also give a hint at what the right answer is. This promotes the learner further considering the question and re-evaluating their answer, rather than just guessing. And if the material is complex enough, or if you’re taking more of a pre-test sort of approach, incorrect responses could point back to remedial content. Regardless, you need to build detailed feedback into your strategy.

Interactions Must Be Intuitive With Clear Objectives

Failure because something is a fair challenge is one thing. Failure while feeling cheated or confused about the rules is something different.

It’s cool to include complex activities in eLearning, but “complexity” needs to describe the sophistication of the activity, not the inability to understand what to do.

A good rule of thumb here is to only make your activities as complicated as they need to be. Ideally, an eLearning activity would be so intuitive, that anyone taking your course would instantly know what they needed to do, without instructions. This isn’t typically realistic. So, make sure you provide instructions. It’s fine if you include these as part of the introductory narration, but brief onscreen prompts are also helpful.

It’s also crucial to include user testing as part of your QA process. The more complicated your activity is, the more important it is for someone other than yourself to look at it. If you’re the one that dreamt up the concept, it certainly makes sense to you. But is it clear to someone that wasn’t inside your head the whole time? Make sure you test this out both at the storyboard and ALPHA development stage. You can’t afford to produce the final course and all your users are busy saying “HUH!?!”

Align Question Type and Difficulty to the Purpose for Asking It

It’s all fine and good to say that you’re going to make challenging knowledge checks, but there’s appropriately challenging and then there’s “how was I supposed to know that?”

This can come in two forms: topics you haven’t covered well enough, and questions that are far too hard for what you’re trying to teach. In the first instance, this is pretty straight forward. Make sure you sufficiently cover the content you’re quizzing on. Stick to main topics, or nuances that you can expect learners could figure out based on the course. Don’t go selecting minor details that don’t matter, or topics that you didn’t cover.

As for the difficulty level, stick to what’s appropriate for the tasks you’re training on. Suppose you’re training someone in maintenance. They need to know floor cleaning procedures. Certainly you would cover putting out the “slippery when wet” sign any time they mop. You probably shouldn’t focus questions on how to triage the scene when someone has slipped on the wet floor (unless that’s something expected of them).

Failing Can Be Good, But Keep Things Balanced

Even though this is an article about the merits of failure in eLearning, if learners completely flop your entire course, they’re gonna be frustrated. So, creating the right balance of success and failure is what you’re going for. If your questions are challenging but fair, you won’t know precisely how much success / failure an individual learner will experience. Don’t worry, this isn’t an exact science. But it is another area where user testing can be invaluable. If you’re concerned about the difficulty level, get a small test group to pilot your quizzes to verify they’re fair. If you follow all these guidelines, you should be able to create a rewarding experience.