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Ways to keep adults engaged in learning games

I was a proud mom this week:  my eldest son was one of 120 learners who qualified for the school spelling bee.  So, we set off in our Sunday best on Thursday night and sat down nervously in the school hall.  The first round included all the learners and consisted of 30 words.  After the panel of teachers marked the papers, the master of ceremonies explained that only half of the learners will make it through to the second round.  He called out the 60 names and then requested that those who didn’t make it through, stay until the end of the competition to “support their friends.”

Okay, that’s a fair request.  But during the short break before round 2, a lot of families whose kids didn’t make it went home.  Was I one of those parents?  Yes, I was.  I admit it.  Why would I stay if there’s little motivation to do so?  It made me think about how to design a learning game to ensure the highest possible engagement.  Here are 3 guidelines that I have picked up over the years.

  1. There should be a motivation to take part. When designing learning games for adults, motivation is key.  It might be as simple as just the prestige of winning, or as silly as a couple of chocolate bars to the winning team.  But motivation has to be there.
  2. The rules must be simple and fair. Most people have a keen sense of fairness.  If they perceive something to be unfair, they will disengage.  As a young facilitator, I got 3 teams to create questions to ask of the other teams in a way that allowed us to cover a lot of content quite quickly.  The rules were simple – team one posed the question to team 2, if team 2 got it correct, they got 2 points.  But if they got it wrong, team 3 then had the opportunity to get 1 point by answering correctly.  And so on.  A couple of rounds in, team 2 got the answer wrong, and without giving team 3 the opportunity to answer, I answered it myself.  Yes, very stupid.  I blame my inexperience at that stage.  But team 3 was very upset and quite vocal about it.  I had my hands full to keep them engaged after that.  I learnt a valuable lesson that day – always be fair.  And keep the rules simple.
  3. There must always be a chance to win. When attending a two-day business simulation a couple of years ago, the team that I was in made a mistake early in the game.  That mistake put us back so far from the other teams that it was impossible to make up the disadvantage before the simulation ended.  That meant that we were disengaged for most of the course.  The same was true for the spelling bee – if you fall out in round 1, you cannot make it up at all.  Recently I designed a “game show” type learning exercise for a company to cover compliance training.  During the first round, teams got points for the correct answer and no points for an incorrect answer.  In round 2, every correct answer scored 2 points, and an incorrect answer scored -1 point.  In this way, teams who didn’t perform in round 1 could make it up in round 2.  The third and final round was scored by who answered correctly first.  If one team answered faster than the others, they would get allocated more points.  Again, teams who lagged in round 2 could still win in round 3, and in that way, win the game.  Everyone was engaged throughout the game, because they always had a chance to win.

When done right, a game is an interactive and fun way to do learning.  Design it right and it will be a great learning experience for your participants.

Lita Currie is owner and director of 3 Stickmen, and specialises in graphic facilitation, development and coaching.

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