The problem with learning via gamification

When you’re trying to learn something, external motivation can kill your intrinsic motivation. And if your intrinsic motivation is dead, you’re far less likely to actually learn what you set out to learn.

Let’s break that statement down and look at what it actually means…

“external motivation”

for example, getting a virtual or tangible reward

“can kill”

destroy, obliterate, annihilate…

“intrinsic motivation”

“motivation that is driven by an interest or enjoyment in the task itself, and exists within the individual” (source)

So what does this mean for you?

Well, if you’re trying to learn something, virtual rewards like points, badges, or achievements (aka gamification) can destroy your natural drive to learn. And if your natural drive is destroyed, you’re less likely to continue learning.

On top of this, external motivation is unstable and unsustainable, whereas intrinsic motivation is quite the opposite: both stable and sustainable. What happens when you start learning with one of those courses that gives you badges every time you accomplish something? You quit learning as soon as the badges stop coming. Totally unsustainable.

As a teacher, I’ll never reward my students with points, badges, or achievements. I’m interested helping them build a sustainable, stable foundation of skills that they can continue to develop on their own after class ends. I’m interested in helping them build up their intrinsic motivation so they can continue learning without me.

If you actually want to learn something and learn it well, focus on developing your intrinsic motivation. You can start by avoiding sites and courses that give you rewards for learning – they may seem like fun, but they’ll destroy your intrinsic motivation and you’ll be far less likely to actually develop the skill you’re trying to learn. Try making a list of all the reasons you want to learn – all the reasons that skill is interesting and enjoyable – and see if that helps you build up intrinsic motivation. And then find a way to learn that doesn’t offer badges, achievements, or points – you’ll be much better off in the long run.

(I’m indebted to Kathy Sierra for most of what I know about extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. She gave an excellent talk called “Secrets of the Whisperers” – which you can watch here or listen to a much more in-depth, audio-only version here. The follow-up is just as enlightening. If you teach, you should listen to both of them.)

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