How to make rewarding learning experiences

October 22, 2020

What do supermarket collectables, video games, social media and poker machines have in common? They all follow the same principles to grab your attention and encourage repeated behaviours – variable rewards. These rewards can form part of highly successful learning experiences.

Variable rewards tap in to the part of our brain known as the ‘pleasure centre’ which is activated in anticipation of a favourable sensation. These rewards form the basis of the marketing strategies and product design behind the success of social platforms like Facebook, and are why I find myself shopping at certain places just to get a little toy.

Variability is the key

Variability makes these rewards even more compelling. Not knowing which plastic figurine is wrapped in paper drives us to crave a resolution. This leads us to repeat behaviours, such as checking to see if someone has liked our post, and keeps us coming back for more.

Marketers and product designers have used variable rewards to great effect for many years. However it is a relatively new concept to use variable rewards to increase engagement with online learning.

This article will explore how various types of variable rewards can improve learning experiences and increase retention, capability and performance.

Learning experiences are more than just courses

The traditional approach to online learning is usually pretty simple – we tend to just tell learners they are required to complete the course! But more often than not the learner will take little away from this approach. And the business, despite investing significant time and money, just ends up with a compliance tick. Getting people to both retain and implement your course material is more difficult to achieve.

To take a more in-depth approach, we need to provide an environment where learners feels compelled to participate. Where they have a vested interest and derive satisfaction out of achieving a task and contributing to their learning environment. By using the variable reward strategies as a basis when designing learning experiences, we can increase engagement and improve learning outcomes.

Getting in to the habit of learning

Nir Eyal discusses forming habits in his book “Hooked”. He classifies variable rewards as three specific types: rewards of the tribe; rewards of the hunt; and rewards of the self. Reflect on your learning strategy and see how many learning campaigns can fit within each of the three types of variable rewards. You can then start to implement some of the ideas below.

Rewards need to reflect audience triggers

Be aware that an approach or strategy with rewards won’t suit every audience. Ensure there is meaning in the rewards relative to your intended audience. Align the reward with job and performance outcomes and industry specific trends.

Another key element is the variability of the reward. Often rewards become predictable and lose their appeal over time. This is a trap for many attempting gamification. As such, finding a novel way to stand out is key to success.

“Rewards are not magic fairy dust that a product designer can sprinkle onto a product to make it instantly more attractive. Rewards must fit into the narrative of why the product is used and align with the user’s internal triggers and motivations. They must ultimately improve the user’s life.”


Rewards of the Tribe

As humans we seek rewards that make us feel accepted, attractive, important and included. Social media platforms have utilised this knowledge to create a trillion dollar industry. When we compulsively check our socials to see if we’ve received more likes or a new comment, it is the reward of the tribe that keeps us coming back for more.

While we are now beginning to understand the negative impact of social media (watch The Social Dilemma if you’re yet to be convinced) the underpinning principle can be used in a positive way. Here’s how you can put it into practice.

Social rewards in learning experiences

  • Create a learning community. Learners engage in an activity or idea when they see others are involved.
  • Give users the opportunity to contribute. To grow a learning community, suggest learners provide their perspective on certain topics by loading videos, adding comments or uploading images. This increases engagement in the subject more than static activities.
  • Incentivise. Reward users who contribute in a way that helps others. Learning by teaching is a great way for learners to retain content and is a powerful motivator. For example, a learner who demonstrates how a task is performed, can upload it and receive peer review and feedback from others.
  • Display skill levels so learners who put in the effort increase their status. This motivates learners by ensuring they feel important and recognised.
  • Ignore trolling. Provide points and recognition for valuable contributions and nothing for negative input.

Rewards of the Hunt

Humans were hunters and gathers and it is still in our nature. Although these days it is the hunt for resources and information that compels us rather tracking down a woolly mammoth! Think about how often you Google something – do we really need to search as often as we do?

Each time we scroll through a changing content feed, be it twitter or the news, we get more reward from a successful hunt rather than the content of whatever post or article we eventually click on.

Hunt rewards in learning experiences

  • Content aggregation. Provide a central way for users to search through content provided by the hundreds of modern providers. Finding learning content relevant to their roles or career aspirations utilise the reward of the hunt.
  • Sharing content. Add a social element so that when learners find relevant content items, they can share with their network and suggest it as a solution to problems their peers may have.
  • Flip it! Online learning usually provides content and then asks questions. Mix it up by starting with the questions and allow learners  to seek and find their own answers through your intranet or other content.

Rewards of the Self

We thrive off our own intrinsic motivations. Even if we don’t readily acknowledge it, there is great satisfaction in finishing something. The reward is greater if the task has been challenging. We achieve rewards of the self through things as simple as making your bed in the morning or levelling-up in a video game. It’s part of the reason why getting your inbox down to zero emails is so satisfying.

Self rewards in learning experiences

  • The most common metric used in learning is a completion. Our platform analytics tell us that learners spend more time on their learning transcript than any others. Obviously, people care about being up to date and compliant, but there is also more powerful aspect at play. Seeing evidence that you have successfully completed something is a feeling we all like.
  • Badges provide a visual representation of achievements and learners will seek these out too.
  • Elaborate challenges such as learning pathways and program pages, benefit from ensuring visible rewards each step of the way as the user completes tasks.
  • Provide a scoring mechanism and rating system, this challenges learners to try again for a better score. Align this method with tasks that require repeat practice to develop skills.

Variable rewards increase engagement and reward the effort L&D teams put into content and delivery strategies. Start with one module, a new project or specific campaign and try it for yourself. As you become more familiar with what works for your industry and people, embrace the concept further, and make it a central theme in your digital learning platform.

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