The Best Ways to Foster Motivation in Online Courses are More Fun than You Think

Gamified Stamp

Was your last online course fun?  Today I participated in a research project by taking a short online course. The topic was social media safety for teens and it was quite boring. It used long texts, no visuals, no interaction, no fun (see example below). It turned out that this was actually an A/B test for eLearning and I got the B version. It gave me a perfect opportunity to point out the do’s and don’ts in learning design!

text lecture pixelated
One of the main lectures about Internet safety in social media. This is only half the page (I had to scroll).  Pixelated to protect copyrights of the owner

It is not the lack of technology

Most eLearning tools and SaaS platforms today offer many professional features to make your course interesting and interactive, even on a shoe-string budget.

It is (usually) not the lack of motivation

Usually, people want to learn something new when they start your course. Human beings are curious. But if you bury important and interesting facts in a heap of text nobody will be able to recall anything later. You don’t need sophisticated interactive scenario-based, video-heavy 3D content though. A few basic design principles go a long way. So let’s have a look at some learning design basics.

Just add a dash of these basic learning design elements

I am not even talking about Gamification (yet), but about basic principles that learning psychology research has known for more than 20 years now. Plus the insights about online courses and mobile learning from the more recently.

Kind of important when you design an online course is:

  • Chunk information into digestible bits
    Do not use long-winded, scrollable boring text deserts. Feed one spoon at a time to the hungry
  • Use visuals, interaction and variance
    Insert pictures, interesting formatting, drag & drop, more than one question type
  • Give the learner instant feedback
    Show real-time feedback for every single question that has been answered. Let the learner know immediately how they are doing and use that at the beginning (when they want to know – they will be immediately intrinsically motivated to move on!).

Ok, but where is the fun part now?

It all part of the fun: making any kind of online learning fun is much easier than you think. If you follow the above three very basic principles your next course will be more fun already. Plus, you will ensure a positive learning impact. Now, let’s take a look at the research. This is where gamification enters the building.

Gamification? Isn’t that just points, badges and leaderboards?

Actually … no (*). There’s more. But even PBL (points, badges, and leaderboards) can make your online course more fun and therefore create a bigger learning impact if used wisely. That’s where I got interested in the research and dove into the „why“ and then „how“. Because, let’s be honest, even with a decent basic learning design you will still have problems: In online courses with many online learners, motivation and scarce social interaction are still problematic, due to the effects of isolation in a seemingly empty online environment. You’re looking at a screen for crying out loud! However, gamification has proven to encourage the development of motivation and engagement in online learning social contexts. So I analysed the gamification elements relevant to online learning with respect to their efficacy towards intrinsic motivation, competition and cooperation as well as to social learning. Turns out that research can sometimes come pretty handy.

Gamified Stamp

Tadaaa: Here’s the most important ingredients for your engaging online class. Seriously. It’s fun!

Spoiler alert: It’s NOT about the ingredients! The prerequisites to success are Game Thinking, freedom of choice and variety. Next, you add the other ingredients like the following two key components for gamification in online learning:

  • Freedom to fail
    Failing in games is fun, right? Turns out that is also true for learning!
  • Rapid Feedback
    realtime, unambiguous, visual, multimedia-based

The mindful reader (cool that you are still with me!) might recall that some of these matches the basic learning design principles I cited before, like variety, using visuals, interaction and real-time feedback.  But wait – there’s more!







Gamification components with major effects on intrinsic motivation:

  • Freedom to fail (retry-button! Epic fails!)
  • storytelling (narrative)
  • meaningful goals
  • rapid feedback
  • challenges

The story element can be quite powerful: you don’t have to write an epic Hollywood plot – use cartoons, characters, themes and tonality to make your course a little more playful and therefore more fun.

In a nutshell, this is what you need to gamify any online learning experience – be it a self-paced coding class or a company training with learning groups. Because:

„Fun is just another word for learning“

(Raph Koster, 2010)

For online courses with more than a handful of people, you’ll need to look at social learning wisdom as well. But that is material for another post.

*) Deterding et al. define Gamification as „the use of game design elements in non-game contexts.” (Deterding et al., 2011, p. 9). Or how eLearning guru and bestseller author Prof. Karl Kapp describes it: „Gamification encompasses the idea of adding game elements, game thinking, and game mechanics to learning content.” (Kapp, 2012, pos. 949).
Deterding, S., Dixon, D., Khaled, R., & Nacke, L. (2011). From Game Design Elements to Gamefulness: Defining “Gamification”. In Proceedings of the 15th International Academic MindTrek Conference on Envisioning Future Media Environments – MindTrek ’11 (S. 9–11). New York: ACM.
Koster, R. (2010). Theory of Fun for Game Design [Kindle Edition]. Paraglyph. Phoenix: Paraglyph Press.
Slezák, G. K. Förderung von Motivation und sozialem Lernen in MOOCs mit Gamification. Available only at

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