Creating Losing Designs

We spend a great deal of time planning for learner success. Do we ever create the ability for learners to lose? Should we?Our society puts a premium on “winning” — nowadays it seems like every team gets a trophy — not just the winner. Americans are culturally bound to the ideal of winning. However, in the real world people lose all of the time: athletes lose games and tournaments, politicians lose elections. In high stakes situations like these, losing has a real consequence. How does this affect learning?Low stakes losing occurs every day. When we lose, we tend to either give up, or continue to practice to overcome the failure. Any casual gamer is familiar with losing and attempting to overcome the loss by quickly replaying the game. Losing, in this context, can be a big motivator, driving the will to practice, which can lead to increased skill. Learning to lose effectively is actually a skill in itself. Resiliency in the face of losing and using strategies to improve is an important life lesson and professional skill. If losing always equates to complete failure, then learners stop striving, stop attempting creative solutions, and see themselves as incapable.In learning design, a primary goal should be to create an atmosphere where losing is acceptable and intrinsically motivates the learner to try again. The potential learning value from this type of experience is measured not by how often the player loses, but by how much they improve through repeated practice.

In your training design include opportunities for low stakes losing before learners are thrust into their high stakes, real-world situations — be it a qualifying exam or on the job performance.

Recommendations for a “losing” design:

  • Make content available on demand so that learners can review material as needed
    • A common mistake is being overly controlling with content. If the goal is for learners to gain knowledge and skills, shouldn’t they have free access to the tools that can make that happen?
  • Communicate how the learner is performing relative to passing scores or via peer-to-peer review as appropriate
    • By communicating how comparatively well they are doing, learners can better sense where they can improve. This also gets their competitive juices flowing.
  • Allow plenty of practice opportunities before the final assessment occurs
    • If the only time that learners can demonstrate knowledge is a final graded test, their opportunities to “lose” are reduced to one high stakes moment. Build in low stakes assessment opportunities that prepare learners for the one that counts.

This post originally appeared in July 2011 on The Total Learner Experience.

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