Online learning

7 pre-performance rituals for a live online session

A very tidy computer work desk with two monitors and two closed laptops, notebook, phone, mouse, keyboard and small camera ready for the working day.
Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

Olympic champion, Katarina Johnson-Thompson counts to 12 before doing the high jump and sets all her kit out the night before in the order she will wear them.

Tennis superstar Rafael Nadal has many rituals during a match: how he places is bottles, using a towel after each shot and his pre-shot touching ritual.

In our archery competition days, both my hubby and I had our own shot routine. I’m not superstitious in the least but a set routine helped me focus and get into the zone.  

Pre-performance preparation

Why do people have rituals before a performance? Some think it is superstition; that if they don’t carry out these rituals something will go wrong. For others it’s more about creating a routine to give a sense of calm and focus before a performance – I’m the latter.

You’ll not be surprised to know that any member of the performing arts will have their routines to prepare them ace their performance. They focus on preparing the voice, the body and the mind to help ace their performance and quieten those butterflies in the stomach.

The live online facilitator (equally applicable to the in-person trainer) is no different. We ‘perform’. We have to ‘show up’ bright and breezy, leaving any stresses and baggage at the virtual door.

My 7 pre-session rituals

I like to make sure I do part of my routine the night before my session especially if I have an early session to run. I’m not a morning person so as much preparation I can do ahead of time the better. But even if I have set everything up read the night before, I will still run through final checks in the hour before my session starts.

  1. Set up my workstation
  2. Check what’s behind me
  3. Check my tech
  4. Check my training materials and tasks
  5. Warm up and energise
  6. Log-in and prepare the virtual room
  7. Chill time

So let’s see what helps me at each stage.

1. Set up my workstation

This is something I try to do the night before and double check some things again before each session.

  • Second laptop to log in as guest
  • Connect working laptop to external monitor(s), keyboard and mouse (makes life easier)
  • Connect a second large external monitor if possible (my mission control)
  • Make sure my bluetooth headsets are on charge and have a spare to hand
  • Pens and notepad
  • Lighting position (you don’t need professional ones but make sure you are well lit)
  • External webcam (inbuilt webcams aren’t always great quality; if you are an iPhone users, check out the Camo app)
  • Session script (I like to print a copy as well as have a digital copy on a second screen)
  • Glass of water and full water bottle
  • Tissues (you never know when you are caught out by a sneeze)

2. Check what’s behind me

For a balanced professional and approachable environment, I am aware of what your participants will see behind me when on camera.

  • Declutter
  • Check what’s in shot
  • Reposition objects e.g. plants, books  

3. Check my tech

At least hour before my first session of the day is due to start, I run my tech checks. This is where the tech gremlins can invade. Even if you do all the right checks, technology often has a mind of its own but there are things you can do to minimise tech disruption.

  • Check all is connected properly
  • Reboot my laptop/PC and the second laptop to join as a guest
  • Run speed test
  • Headset is charged and ready
  • Webcam working (privacy shutter open if using my inbuilt one)
  • Turn off notifications
  • Turn phone to silent (or off)
  • Close all applications you won’t be using (the may cause problems with your network)

4. Check training material and tasks

I will make sure my training materials such as session notes, slides, exercises are all correct at least the night before my session. Sometimes, there may be a tweak you need to add on the day.

I try not to look at my general emails before a session. I can easily get caught up in something that distracts me. I create a rule on my email client to group course participants into a specific folder, this help keep my focus when doing pre-session email checks.

  • Update slides with participant names, dates of next session etc
  • Copy files I will use to a folder on desktop for easy use (it makes my life so much easier)
  • Check my email for any apologies or questions from participants
  • Set up and minimise third part apps e.g. Jamboard, Menitimeter, etc for activities

5. Warm up and energise 

I take inspiration from stage performance warm-ups for my routine here. These are especially helpful for my early sessions. Sometimes, the first time I might speak in the morning is when I say hello online. Stretches do me good between sessions and in breaks in sessions too. Often a little karaoke to something upbeat combines my vocal warm up with my exercise – I just can’t stand still when a good tune is playing.

  • Get in a few stretches
  • Do a little deep breathing
  • Vocal exercises to warm up the voice and loosen the muscles

6. Log in and prepare the virtual room 

This is my routine 30 to 40 minutes before I open the welcome session 15 minutes before the session start time. However, unless you have prevented participants from joining until a specific time, be prepared that some may want to join very early. I’ve had people join 30 minutes early while I’m still in the middle of my set up routine. That can throw a curve ball so it’s useful to have a digital or printed checklist you can tick off. Although these are not rituals as such, I do like to do them in a set order. Not out of superstition but I am less likely to forget a step. I also like to refer to a printed checklist I can tick off just in case I get interrupted.

  • Log into session
  • Check my webcam feed – final check of how the background looks
  • Reposition lighting to check no reflection in my glasses
  • Check my audio is working
  • Check/amend settings for the session (even if the system remembers the settings, I like to be doubly sure)
  • Set up breakout rooms (if using)
  • Set up / cue up polls (if using)
  • Check files and applications prepared earlier share ok
  • Upload Welcome session slides if separate from session slides
  • Upload main session slides and test
  • Cue up recording window for a quick click when ready to record
  • Arrange windows/pods as preferred across my multi screen set up
  • Send session invite reminder to participants

6. Chill time

If you have planned things well and you don’t get any really early joiners, you, as I, should enjoy a little mellow time. A little breathing space to get into the zone. This is the time I go and make myself a cup of tea and take back to my desk. A hot honey and lemon keeps my throat going if I have several sessions during the day too. I also avoid eating anything this soon before the session. I’ve made that mistake before and end up coughing.

  • I grab a hot drink but not anything to eat
  • Smile – it boosts my mood and gets me into a positive mindset
  • Adjust posture and get comfortable 
  • Focus on your participants – it’s not about you
  • Change my choice of music to a sedate instrumental or quiet classical
  • Now I’m ready for when my co-host arrives (if I have one for the session) and to welcome early bird participants.

Share your rituals

Everyone has their own rituals and routine. What do you recognise you do from my list? What might you try? What tips can you share that have helped you get ready for your sessions.

Blended Learning

Seize the day

Don’t take one step forward and two steps back

Carpe Diem

Rewind to 2002: I was still on dial-up on an old 486 PC, ‘talking’ with my boyfriend (now husband) on MS Messenger. Just imagine if this pandemic happened then … on dial-up! It doesn’t bear thinking about. There was little choice available as an alternative to classroom apart from traditional distance learning with real books, video cassettes and coursework sent through the post. We are living in a digitally enabled world where digital technology gives us greater opportunities than we could have dreamed of less than 20 years ago.

I’ve learned from experts thousands of miles away without leaving my couch and check the ‘magic box’ (my iPhone), whenever I need a definition, translate into English or to convert metres to feet to make sure I’m far enough away from people (yep, I still haven’t got the hang of metric).

We’ve only really had access to decent quality broadband in recent years albeit patchy in rural areas. With more consistent quality broadband during lockdown we have been able to stream films and binge-watch boxed sets; keep in touch with friends and family on Zoom, WhatsApp, FaceTime; kept active with Joe Wicks via his YouTube channel (well, erm, not everyone regardless of good intentions). 

Thrust into remote working we communicated and learned through WebEx, Teams, Slack groups, and online course platforms like Udemy and LinkedInLearning. Organisations speedily fast-forwarded their digital transformation programmes and upgraded their IT infrastructure, adapted business models quickly for remote digital working.

In the 5 years up to end of March 2020, we saw a significant increase in internet use from 86.2% to 92.1%  (Office for National Statistics) with a considerable drop in those who rarely/never used the internet – from 13.5% to 7.9%

As yet, there are no statistics for 2020/2021 but there’ll be no prizes for guessing there will be a much bigger increase.

The next phase of different

There is no denying that 2020 drastically changed the learning and development landscape. We proved we are resilient, inventive, proactive and determined to continue to thrive against adversity in more ways than one. Now, with COVID vaccines, home testing kits, and socially distanced adapted inside spaces, we are readying ourselves for the next phase of different. 

At last we have a tantalising peek at being able to meet in-person in larger, more socially distanced groups – and indoors!. But beware, this isn’t an excuse to go back to doing what we’ve always done, to throw away all that we’ve learned and return blindly to the classroom without careful consideration.

After just over a year since the first COVID lockdown, there already appears to be some cautious moves back to the more socially distanced classroom. Is this move the right move? Maybe, maybe not. Before returning to the classroom, we should ask ourselves if we are doing this for the right reasons? Should we be doing it as much?Should we be doing it at all?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-classroom. On the contrary, I cut my training teeth in the classroom and spent the best part of my L&D career helping fellow L&D professionals hone their classroom facilitation skills as well as helping them transition to live online and blended. 

Great classroom experiences are where learners are actively involved are both enjoyable and rewarding. We love the energy, the sense of community, the ad-hoc conversations, the meeting of minds, the speed of exploring new ideas, sharing experiences and, yes, just being in the presence of others. 

When we do return to the classroom we need to make sure it is for all the right reasons especially as many activities can be successfully run online. Not only that, but digital tools give us added advantages over classroom that increase learning efficacy and which we’ll explore more in later posts.

Make smart choices not Frankenblends 

Don’t make rash decisions about delivery channels and tools too soon. All too often we consciously or unconsciously plan for a classroom or virtual classroom or elearning self-study course at the outset. Sometimes, the decision has been made for us. Have you every been told that it MUST be in the classroom, and under no circumstances must anything go online? or vice versa? I certainly have in the past! We then have to make the learning activities fit that environment rather than concentrate on what is most appropriate for the learning need and the learners.

If we are not careful, blended solutions can become nothing more than Frankenstein’s monster blends (Frankenblends): digital content bolted on for learners to read, or an elearning module to complete with little or no support before they attend several days in a classroom. At best, there may be tenuous linking between each element, at worst, these feel disparate and disconnected. For seamless blended solutions that are not only more efficient but improves effectiveness we should make sure we really understand the situation we are catering for and it’s all too easy to fall back into a classroom by default habit.

Play the Devil’s advocate

No matter how we might feel about it, the future is one of ‘digital by default’. This doesn’t mean we choose digital instead of classroom, it means we should consider digital technologies for learning before we consider classroom and base our choices on what is appropriate – not on our personal likes and dislikes.  

Over many years I worked with people in many different organisations to help them plan effective and efficient blended solutions. I always suggested that they imagine classroom is no longer an option on the table (no I didn’t have any premonitions of the pandemic). This helped them rid the shackles of habit and think differently. 

Every time they suggested that classroom (which is the most expensive of resources) was the only way, I played the Devil’s Advocate, wanting a robust rationale behind their decisions. Very often, I was able to explain how a digital alternative would be as effective (if we don’t know what’s possible or have the skills, we will choose only what we know). When they eventually set out a their final arguments for classroom, when all avenues had been explored and rationally dismissed, I knew they had chosen classroom for the right reasons and making the best use of them.

Carpe Diem 

So let us seize the day. Don’t go back to the classroom just because we can. Let’s seize the opportunity continue to take our learning solutions to the next level, to make smart choices to choose what needs to happen before you decide how you will deliver it. To remind ourselves what good learning involves:



Retrieval and spaced practice 

Personalise and presence 


Digestible chunks


Effective feedback


How will you seize the day? What differences will you make to your future learning solutions to help you move forward? What challenges might lie ahead that threaten making smarter choices? 

If you would like an informal chat to talk through any ideas you have or would like to pick my brains, please drop me a message. 


Words matter

The power of words video

Whilst researching some marketing ideas, I came across this video. It certainly got my tear ducts going. Then I started to think about how powerful our words are and the impact they can have on people.

I don’t know why I’m surprised by some of the comments I read on news feeds, the detachment that the internet provides can bring out the worst in people (or does it just amplify our underlying character??). I am often saddened by the scathing and hurtful comments I read. 

When I was young (a very long time ago), we used to chant “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never harm me.” – not true – words matter.  Hurtful words worm their way into our subconscious and needle us, chipping away at our self esteem or feeding the anger. Some can bat them back into submission, others can’t.

Recently, I read a comment on a BBC news item on Facebook; a woman was being taunted by people because her name is Corona.  One of the comments by a young (compared to me) man was how people should take care when giving people’s names to things such as viruses (I paraphrase).  I don’t often comment on feeds but this time I replied explaining that Corona means crown and that the reason the virus is called Corona virus is that, under a microscope, it had an crown-like appearance. The lady was given her name probably because of it’s meaning.

I followed my comment with a smile emoji or two and a “I hope that makes sense” to emphasise that I was trying to be helpful not judgemental.

We had a short exchange of posts about names and their meanings (while others ranted on with their opinions).  It ended by  another reader making just a simple observation …. “what a refreshing conversation!” (it was).

It’s easy to fall into the trap of responding with written words that can be taken the wrong way. Without the voice or gestures to convey the meaning we intend, our words can be misconstrued and hurtful, they become verbal sticks and stones.

In this socially distanced 2020 and beyond, take care with the words you write.  Put yourselves in your reader’s shoes.  Especially as learning professionals, we want to motivate, encourage and inspire our learners. Get a balance of being succinct and friendly when you coach, give feedback and guide.

Words matter – change your words to make a positive difference.

What stories do you have about the impact our words can have? Do you have any tips to share?

Learning design, Reviews

Who ya gonna call? Mythbusters (or Clark Quinn’s book Millennials, goldfish & other training misconceptions)

Ghost buster logo on car door

When we visit the doctor, we put our trust in their expertise and rely on them to keep at the top of their game. Imagine if, when you complained of suffering from migraines, your doctor recommended a series of bloodletting to relieve the pressure!  Bloodletting was practised by the medical profession using a device (sometimes, using leeches) as recently as 1923! Fortunately, doctors no longer recommend this course of treatment because (unsurprisingly), they realised it didn’t work.

As a learning and development professional, our delegates put their development and skills in our hands; they trust that we have the current skills to help them learn and develop new skills. As with the medical profession, we have a duty to keep up to date, critique, analyse and act on evidence.

The stuff of myths and legend

It’s healthy to question, to never take things at face-value, especially when people rely on our advice and support. I like to do a fair amount of research. Does that make me a Theorist? Hmm, I thought I was more of a Reflector …but I also like to get stuck in and try things out; surely that means I’m an Activist… but… I need some real examples how this might work. Now I’m confused…that would make me a Pragmatist. Help! I have a split personality!

If you value your professional credibility, you will already be keeping up with current debates, thinking and theories. You may have even debated these yourself. Wouldn’t it be great if you could find some evidence one way or the other? But where do you start?

In his book, ‘Millennials, goldfish & other training misconceptions’, Clark Quinn gives you that start you might be looking for.

Clark Quinn looks at three categories:

  1. Learning myths (e.g. tailoring to learning styles etc)
  2. Learning superstitions (e.g. smile-sheets equals evaluation)
  3. Learning misconceptions (e.g. 70-20-10)

It’s a lovely, easy read and is meant as a starting point; it is packed full of citations and references should you wish to delve deeper into the evidence behind the counter arguments. I love that (there’s that ‘Theorist’ in me again ).

The myths

For each myth, Clark Quinn gives a brief description and its appeal. Then he sets out the pros, cons and suggestions on evaluating its validity. Finally, we are given a summary of what the evidence actually says followed by advice on what we should do.

The superstitions

Similarly, we read a brief description of each. Clark Quinn then sets out the rationale, why it doesn’t work and what do to instead.

The misconceptions

We can easily misunderstand the purposes of certain practices. Here Clark Quinn gives us a counter argument against the brief description of a commonly held belief. He then helps us reconcile, before making suggestions on what we can do.

What I really love about this easy read is that he gives us a handy little summary section where the key points are set out in easy to read tables.

This is a must on your bookshelf. It’s a handy reference and is small enough to carry around with you without taking up too much space or add to the weight in your L&D kit-bag. Ideal for those moments when a debate is about start or you need a quick memory jogger.

This book has re-affirmed some of my own counter arguments for some learning theories and practices that just didn’t sit right with me; I’ve also had some myths and beliefs busted. I’m OK with that. What about you?

Learning design

The lost weekend, part 2: exploring the thirteen game mechanics

Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash

In my previous post on gamification, I began exploring the subject and why games are so popular and, at times, addictive.  I introduced you to 13 game mechanics and here I will delve a little deeper into these as identified by Karl Kapp1

The 13 game mechanics

  1. Characters
  2. Story
  3. Mystery
  4. Challenge
  5. Levels
  6. Goals
  7. Rules
  8. Time
  9. Feedback
  10. Chance
  11. Replayability
  12. Aesthetics
  13. Rewards


Characters, like in novels, are an important element which helps immerse the gamer (or learner) in the game environment.  They are a vital part of the storytelling.  They help make an emotional connection.

In her book eLearning and the Science of Instruction, third edition *Ruth Clark refers to characters as avatars or agents and their inclusion is part of ‘the personalisation principle’.  Although, characters don’t need to have a human appearance, evidence shows that non-human characters should be human-like.  I like to think of it as the ‘Disney effect’ – how else could you worry for a snowman with a carrot for a nose and sticks for arms as he dreams of the warmth of the sun?

*the fourth edition of the above book was published March 2016

The personalisation principle is similar for gamification.  The learner, when taking on the role of a character (these are called avatars), practises behaviours in the game until they are mastered.  When seeing yourself carrying out tasks and problem solving as a character (a first person view), has less impact than seeing the character doing the same (a third person view).  And, if the learner is able to adapt a character’s appearance to resemble themselves, this has an even greater impact than just choosing a character to become.

Avatars are not the only characters in the game.  Just like in a novel, the avatar may interact with other characters and it is important that the ‘story’ characters help keep the pace going.  Finally, there is another type of character which can have a positive impact on learning in games.  Those acting as mentors (Ruth Clark refers to these as pedagogical agents) provide instruction and encouragements.  These also have a positive impact especially where speech rather than text is used and the language is in a conversational tone. This all helps make an immersive environment.


The story, like the characters, is essential for gamification.  It engages and guides people through the game.  It provides relevance, context and meaning.  When we think about it, all games we play have an element of storytelling. In Cluedo, a murder has taken place and the players look at the clues on the cards to help them decide whether it was Miss Scarlet with the rope in the library. Even a game of chess is a story of kingdom against kingdom and what strategy will help us conquer all.

Because we remember stories better than random facts, the story will help learners relate the game to their own goals making the learning more powerful and enabling better recall in work-based situations.  This is why using scenarios are effective in elearning or classroom settings – gamification takes storytelling to a higher level.  According to Kapp, there are four story elements which we will explore at a later date.

  1. Characters
  2. Plot
  3. Tension
  4. Resolution


Building in mystery appeals to our sense of curiosity and our emotional state.  What will pique our curiosity?  Things which are incomplete, complex or there are inconsistencies.  Also, surprise and novelty will evoke our cognitive curiosity.  Our sensory curiosity should also be stimulated through the visuals, sound and movement.

Building in a sense of fantasy can help the learner experience situations they have not been presented with before.  These, in effect, create metaphors, analogies and vivid mental images which increase and improve learners’ memory.

I think back to my own CSI Wii game example where I only had some of the facts and clues that were hidden in the visual environment. There were inconsistencies in the information I was gathering and I can honestly say, I’ve never before had to investigate a crime but the fantasy elements helped me draw on experiences learned in the game and assimilate to past experiences and knowledge even though I’ve never been at a crime scene in my life.


There are three types of challenges we learn about in Kapp’s book on gamification: conflict, competition and co-operation.  Challenges allow us to use higher level thinking to solve problems and keep our attention going.  We have to be careful to get the challenge level right.

I call this the Goldilocks effect. Her porridge had to be not too hot and not too cold to be just right to eat. Equally, the challenge should not be too difficult as to frustrate the learner, thus demotivating them; nor should it be too easy that they become bored. Neither will help learning happen.  The challenge should be ‘just right’ to maintain motivation and the flow state mentioned in Part 1.


According to a recent survey by TalentLMS the most preferred gamification techniques by learners is that of ‘levelling up’.  That may surprise you – when the question of what we (L&D professionals) at the World of Learning in 2015 thought people who play games would prefer, most hands went up for points or competing with peers.

Having been sucked in by only the CSI game, my own experience was the challenge of getting to the next level in the game.  I didn’t care so much about collecting bugs (entomology was Grissom’s thing) although enough bugs would give me a bonus crime scene to solve; I wasn’t interested in competing against others either. However, points mean a lot to a lot of people, coming second most preferred element in the survey when playing games.  More about rewards later.

Building in levels provides easy to intermediate challenges which cater for different levels of abilities.  Each level will not only introduce new challenges and therefore new learning, but the opportunity to practise skills and knowledge learned in previous levels.  Levels will help the story progress, increasing mystery and maintain the curve of interest- ‘levelling up’ motivates progression and evokes a feeling of accomplishment.


Setting goals provides a clear purpose, helps focus and establishes measurable outcomes for the learner to achieve. In order to get to the next level, the learner may have to achieve a number of measurable goals.  Each level will have its own set of goals which, eventually, will lead to the overall goal.  Goals will challenge the learner and, when achieved, act as incentives to continue to achieve the overall goal.


There are three rules for the player:

  1. Operational – rules on how to play the game e.g. you can’t enter the witness’s office without a warrant and you can’t get a warrant without collecting sufficient evidence
  2. Implicit – these are rules on how to behave and are implied rather than written down.  You could call them rules of etiquette and would be mostly applied in a multiplayer game
  3. Instructional – these feel similar to operational rules but they provide an opportunity for learning


Like goals, can help learners focus and encourages prioritising tasks.   Playing ‘against the clock’ can help speed up mental agility and help us carry out task efficiently – skills which are transferrable back in the workplace.  Taking my CSI game as an example – I was very inefficient in my deductions which was the cause of staying up until stupid-o’clock playing detective.  The reason?  I refused to ask my mentor, Catherine, for help.  I was stubborn and wanted to crack the case myself.  I may have got the killer but maybe at the expense of another victim? Not great if the game is to encourage team working and efficiency.  This links to the instructional rule above.


This is not the same as giving direct feedback in a traditional elearning module. Feedback is constant and seamless.  It will be visual, auditory and possibly multi-sensory.  Learners will experience feedback in relation to where they are in the game, in relation to others and or the goal.  It may emulate the type of feedback people receive in real life if they carried out the same tasks or explored the same environment.

Take my CSI example; I received visual and auditory feedback following every action I took.  If I decided to explore a specific corner of the crime scene by moving the arrow keys on the controller, feedback would be constant and involve seeing (or hearing) different things as I moved towards the destination.  All of which I would mentally digest for later reference. If I chose to collect evidence with the correct tool from my CSI bag, I would see the evidence had been collected.  If I chose the wrong tool, feedback would either be that the evidence wasn’t collected or I may have been told what that tool would be used for to help me re-evaluation and make another choice.

Essentially, constant feedback helps the learner learn from their mistakes and allows them freedom to fail.  I like to think of it as the ‘cause and effect’ principle where everything they do will have a consequence.  Feedback may be visual cues and results of their actions through the game.  Feedback also acts as a guide to help the learner learn.  It doesn’t tell you what you should do – rather, it allows you to work it out and do it differently the next time you encounter the same or similar obstacle.


This is all about how building in the right level of uncertainty influences motivation to continue with the game and, therefore, achieve the goal.  The uncertainty factor, whether it is gaining points or reaching levels, releases dopamine levels in the brain which can increase motivation levels by 50%.  According to Liraz Margalit Ph.D. in her article ‘Why are the Candy Crushes of the world dominating our lives’,

the reward is more pleasurable the more surprising it is and is ‘strongly rooted in our evolution’.

The uncertainty of whether rewards are gained has a positive effect on the emotional aspect of the learning experience which, according to Kapp1, improves encoding and later recall.


When we encourage unlimited replay, we will encourage learning through repetition and practise.  This, as with feedback, gives permission to fail, revaluates decision making and behaviour, encourages exploration and prompts curiosity.

Replayability allows the learner to test out new ideas and learn from mistakes.  It is important to maintain motivation by building in support should the learner continue to make the same mistakes.  For example, rather than tell the learner what they should have done, offer another task which is easier to complete.  This will help to rebuild their confidence, practise the skills and ‘level up’ again.  The next time they level up and are faced with those tasks they failed in before, the same skills will be called for again once they’ve had an opportunity to ‘replay’ and become more proficient.


The quality of the visual design is vital to the overall sensory experience for the learner, even in the simplest of games to ensure that the visual layout is appropriately stimulating.  The quality of the visuals can make or break the success of the game.  If the game design itself is poor, good visuals won’t make it any better; but if the game design is good, well designed visuals will make the overall experience great because the learner becomes immersed in the environment.

Attention to detail is crucial when it comes to aesthetics however, realism is not.  Characters do not to have a realistic appearance to make a connection with the learner.  In fact, if you try for a realistic look and it isn’t quite there, it can have the opposite effect.  Characters and objects can work just as well if they are simplified or cartoon-like.

Depending on the type of content you are building, different style graphics may work better with one than the other.  For example, high fidelity, realistic visuals and authentic environments tend to work better for higher order thinking skills, whereas simplistic game visuals can work best for facts.

Whatever look you go for, the important things to consider is the quality of the graphics and how they work together.


Finally, we come to what some might think of as what really makes gamification.  Rewards are certainly useful game mechanics to consider.  As we read above, they play a part of chance which releases dopamine levels in our brains which, in turn, motivates us to continue with the game.  However, we need to think carefully when building in rewards. Rewards should be integral to the game rather than the focus of the game.  If we are not careful, the learner’s goal will be reward focused rather than learning/goal focused.

Receiving rewards motivates.  There are two types of motivation we should consider: intrinsic and extrinsic.

Intrinsic motivation is where we do something for its own sake or for the positive feeling of achievement.  When we think of intrinsic rewards this is the satisfaction we get from carrying out a task itself not from the results of completing the task.

Extrinsic motivation is where we are motivated by receiving something good or avoiding something bad. For example, extrinsic rewards might be reaching a certain grade or achieving the top 5 on a leader board or reaching the next level.

Link rewards to tasks in the game instead of awarding random prizes or rewards. Extrinsic rewards have a positive impact on intrinsic motivation when they are built into the feedback on how the learner is doing.  It is important to plan for both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation when considering a reward system.


To leave you with a final thought from Karl Kapp1: “..the story, the challenge, the sense of control, decision making and a sense of mastery – these are the elements of games that are of the most value”.  So, when considering bringing gamification into your blended approach, focus on these not just rewards, badges and leader boards.

1Kapp, K.M. (2012) The gamification of learning and instruction; game-based methods and strategies for training and education  Pfeiffer 1st Ed. (Kindle)

Learning design

The lost weekend Part 1 – an exploration of game-mechanics and gamification on our motivation

It’s three o’clock in the morning.  Where did that last 6 hours go?  

Am I in a time warp and have been bounced forward in a blink of an eye?

No, I’ve been collecting evidence, visiting different venues, asking lots of questions of different people.  I’m very fastidious – I don’t leave a room – or, at least, I revisit it many times, until it’s been thoroughly checked; crawling on hands and knees, shining my torch, picking up any unusual or out of place item I might come across.  It takes some time and I have to go back to the lab and review my case notes regularly.  Something has to tie all of this together.

I’m not alone.  I have my colleague with me. She’s been in the job for quite some time now.  I’m just a newbie and Catherine Willows is there to give me a helping hand if I need it.  It’s only my fourth case and each one has been tougher than the last.  I’m learning fast though.  I’ve already solved the last three by putting all the clues together and analysed the evidence.  It won’t be long before I’m a fully-fledged CSI agent.  But for now, I must put my Wii controller down and go to bed.

There was a little girl,
Who had a little curl,
Right in the middle of her forehead.
When she was good, she was very, very, good, but
When she was bad, she was horrid.

A rhyme which, I’m sure, resonates with all mums and dads out there.  Seren, a typical little girl, is no different.  To encourage good behaviour, she receives a ‘good girl’ star (Seren is Welsh for star so she loves stars) and pops it in a box on the windowsill.  When she is naughty and doesn’t do what she’s asked, she gets a ‘naughty girl’ token which cancels out the ‘good girl’ star.  Seren knows that if she wants a special treat like a sleep-over with her Auntie Laura, she has to collect a certain number of stars.

Both these true stories are examples of game mechanics in action; one for pure pleasure (the CSI Wii game, if you hadn’t guessed) and one to influence positive behaviour in children.


Why are games so compelling?

Put simply, the key factors for player motivation are the sensory stimulation of game realism, experience striving to overcome challenges, opportunities to explore the game environment, discover new information and a sense of control1.

Games have been around for centuries.  Games and gamification have been applied in the L&D arena in one form or another for a long time too.  L&D professionals have used them to engage learners in the classroom through card activities, case studies, role plays, competing teams etc.

They’ve been used by the military for strategic thinking, the sales industry for customer service and in the health profession participating in online games is said to have improved hand/eye co-ordination in laparoscopy surgeons.  They’ve been used to help us improve our fitness levels.  Think Wii-Fit, the FitBit, Nike-fuel  (unfortunately, the game-mechanics don’t motivate me enough to change my sloth-like lifestyle)

Take a look at how VW used game-thinking to motivate people to take the stairs rather than the escalator with their piano stairs.  The result was 66% more people opted for the musical stairs.

Some might conclude that playing immersive, commercial, collaborative games can equip players for life in the workplace.

The Department of Work and Pensions (UK) developed an online social innovation community with game-mechanics to motivate collaboration called Idea Street 

Amuzo’s play2learn project is developing high-fidelity serious games for sales, compliance and recruitment to name just a few.

Sponge has helped bring gamification to elearning modules for compliance, leadership and public services.


What is gamification?

Perhaps, before we define what it is, it might be worth exploring what it isn’t.  Gamification is…

not the same as game-based learning

Game-based learning, according to Karl Kapp, is using a game or games to teach knowledge, skills and abilities to learners in a self-contained space with a beginning, middle and end.

not just about points, badges and leaderboards…

Using such elements as bolt-ons to boring content can have a detrimental effect on learner motivation, perception and quality of the learning.  Ryan Tracey raises his concerns in his blog post The dark side of gamification 

not a trivialisation of learning..

According to Carol Leaman, CEO of Axonify, “when learning is wrapped up in a game , more learning occurs.  Those who select a game participate 20% more than those who don’t”.  She also explains that 30% of Axonify learners check the leader board every time they visit the platform – 40% if they are sales professionals.  Fully immersive simulation games have helped learners develop strategic thinking and apply behaviours through trial and error in a realistic, safe environment.

not appropriate for every situation…

To decide on the appropriate type of game mechanics to apply will need a detailed analysis of the situation to establish what knowledge, skills or behaviour is required, together with the relevant instructional strategies.

not a fad…

Gamification is gaining momentum in learning and development.  The younger generation, who have grown up with video gaming and multi-user immersive online environments will no longer accept the read, click next, style of eLearning so often experienced in the corporate learning solutions (although there is a positive change happening).

not just for the young…

In April 2015, Polygon reported on the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) statistics that the average age of gameplayers is 35 and 27% are over 50 years of age (link). Oh, and by the way, I can personally attest to this one!

not just for consoles…

In the UK, according UKIE, over half of the £500m UK app market is spent on games and mobile gaming revenue is up 21% since 2013.  In terms of revenue per download, the UK is more profitable than Germany, USA and China

not just an insular experience…

37% of frequent game players play social games


So what IS gamification?

In his book The gamification of learning and instruction; game-based methods and strategies for training and education2, Karl Kapp defines it as  “gamification is using game-based mechanics, aesthetics and game thinking to engage people, motivate action, promote learning and solve problems in a non-game context”  There are two types of game mechanics:

  1. Structural – where the learner is taken through the game to learn the content and applying game elements such as points and leader boards.  There is no change to the game structure itself.  An example is Duolingo, it’s a free app for learning languages where it awards points for correct answers and takes points away for incorrect answers.  This is a very simplistic description for a very popular and successful learning app which is designed for short, regular burst of learning content (and an excellent example of applying spaced learning).
  2. Content – where game elements such as story, characters, challenges and curiosity, together with game thinking to make the content itself more like a game.  The learner interacts with the elements of the content.  An example could be the CSI game mentioned at the start of this blog.


What keeps us playing? 

Why did I stay up until 3am?  The key is maintaining the curve of interest.  It’s about achieving the cognitive flow state.  I like to think of the flow as the perfect storm for immersion.  It’s that sweet place between boredom and anxiety.

According to psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, when a person’s skill level is low and the task is too difficult, they become anxious.  On the other hand, if the task is too easy for their skills ability, they become bored and easily distracted.

Success is when skill and difficulty are more or less proportionate.  When they achieve this, the player experiences extreme focus, a sense of active control and become so immersed in the game that they experience a loss of self-awareness and time just disappears.  Yep – I guess I experienced the flow state.

For this to occur, Csikszentmihalyi identified 4 characteristics:

  1. Concrete goals with manageable rules
  2. Set actions within a player’s ability to achieve the goals
  3. Feedback on performance
  4. Reduction in distractions

Earlier, I highlighted that gamification is so much more than points, leader boards and badges.  These do play an important role when implemented appropriately, but they are only some of the 13 game elements involved in applying gamification.  These are:

  1. Characters
  2.  Story
  3. Mystery
  4. Challenge
  5.  Levels
  6. Goals
  7. Rules
  8. Time
  9. Feedback
  10. Chance
  11. Replayability
  12. Aesthetics
  13. Rewards

Although not all of these elements need to be present.  We’ll explore each of these game elements more closely in part 2.  In the meantime, what are your own experiences?  Have you been so immersed that you forgot to eat, pick up your children from school or walk the dog?  What was the game that did that?  Have you experienced them for learning something new? Are you using gamification for your own learning programmes?


1Webarchive Learning in immersive worlds: a review of game-based learning Joint Information Systems Committee, Freitas

2Kapp, K.M. (2012) The gamification of learning and instruction; game-based methods and strategies for training and education  Pfeiffer 1st Ed. (Kindle)