How to turn your learners into compulsive completers

Puzzle missing a piece“I don’t have all 217 Jubumba Beanie Bops!” your child cries. “I only have 216! I have to have the last one! Just one more! Pleeease!!!”

Your child has been possessed by the Compulsive Completer, a beast that lives in all of us. From deep within our brains, it intones, “Must! Complete! Collection!” The closer we are to completion, the more insistent the demand.

You can harness the mighty force of the Completer to motivate your learners. Here’s one way to do it.


Consider offering a series of rewards throughout a course or other linear experience. Each reward builds on the last to create a desirable collection–all of it imaginary.

In a comment to Tom Kuhlmann’s post Motivate Your Learners with These 5 Simple Tips, Martin Kopsch describes the approach he took with home loan consultants:

At the beginning of the course they were given a floorplan of a 3 bedroom house. No furniture, fittings, finishes. At various stages during the course the learner was rewarded by being offered options of furniture, kitchen appliances, bathroom fittings, etc. The final reward, at the end of the course, was a virtual car in the virtual garage. All these “rewards” cost absolutely nothing, but a sense of competition quickly developed amongst learners: Result? Every one got a virtual car, ie 100% completion rate.

When a house is incomplete, it’s obvious–and the Compulsive Completer complains loudly. Any physical project will clearly show its incomplete status and motivate learners to finish it. What kind of imaginary project or collection would inspire your learners?

Experience instead of stuff?

If you don’t want to offer your learners a collection of imaginary stuff, how about some imaginary experiences? Let’s say that your organization has 9 locations around the world, and your course covers a topic related to this globalization. You could try something like this:

  1. Tell your learners that they will be taking a trip around the world, stopping at all 9 locations and having an adventure at each one.
  2. Show them a map with the locations identified and none of them marked as visited.
  3. When a learner earns the first reward, send them to the first location. Show them a photo of an appealing staff person in that location and in one engaging paragraph describe a fun local adventure (or mis-adventure!) that the learner enjoys with that person.
  4. Maybe give the learner an imaginary souvenir from that adventure, and mark that spot on the map as visited.

Offer choices to increase involvement

To involve your learners more, let them choose something about their reward at each step. For example, give them a choice of carpeting styles, including something fun like hideous orange shag. Or if they’re on a world tour, let them pick an adventure at each location.

Or turn the whole thing into a story

Of course, you won’t need separate rewards if you can make the entire course a story and use plot devices to make learners want to know what happens next.

Story line in one dimension

What are some other ways in which you can make an incomplete course practically demand to be completed?


  1. I like this approach much more than the endless thermometers or gauges. One client, in a dry financial field like mortgage processing (or like mortgage processing used to be) had wanted to award points for sections completed.

    Nothing else, just points.

    Which I guess is okay, but my idea was to start with a Bob Cratchit character in a tiny Victorian office; mastery of the various skills would update Bob’s surroundings… electric lights, a pen instead of a quill, a computer instead of a paper ledger. A lot like furnishing that house, but more accounting-like.

    The client, alas, didn’t have quite that sense of whimsy.

  2. Cathy,

    Great article and I like this approach. This example will serve well in an asynchronous/virtual training. I worked for an organization that conducted training sessions to many school all over the US. The training manager was looking for ways to engage learners online. What she decided to do is use some of the Microsoft Live Meeting features such as Whiteboard analog tools. She would ask them interesting questions such as “how is the weather on your side of the town?” This somewhat increased interactivity, because they had to type this information on the screen. However, having an example like this would have encouraged learning a great deal.

    Thank you for the great tips.

  3. Hi Cathy, this is indeed a cool and effective approach.

    It immediately made me think of the “Your profile is xx% complete” bar in LinkedIn – which, whenever I see it, immediately makes me want to add more stuff to my profile to get it up to 100%.

    LinkedIn have cleverly provided a little tip immediately below the bar telling me how to achieve the next 5%!

    I wonder whether there’s a way to harness this behaviour to encourage ongoing contributions and interactions in an informal learning space – for example, a product support wiki shared by a number of groups within an organistaion. Any thoughts?

  4. Tim, I think the LinkedIn progress bar works because there really is a point at which a person’s profile is complete–when all the fields are filled in. In most wikis, the content pages are never really complete because they’re not as structured as a profile form. However, if the pages can be made to be more like empty forms, an “incomplete” reminder could be used. I’m thinking of the “scaffold” idea here:

    If there’s a goal for the wiki, such as reaching 500 pages, someone could have fun creating a landscape through which the organization is moving. The 500-page goal could be the promise of some secret, highly desirable place, with other milestones representing places that are undesirable in some funny way. The current spot on the journey could be displayed on the wiki home page.

    That way, people could joke about how the wiki is still behind the dumpster in the alley (or wherever) but be motivated to add to the project to find out what the next, more desirable location will be.

  5. This gave me a lot of ideas to rewrite some of my material, thanks! 🙂

  6. bluant79 says:

    First I would definitely agree that there is a completer inside us all. I can remember taking part in a competition just so the other people wouldn’t win (and they didn’t). I can only see one downside to the prizes throughout. That would be that people would be more focused on the prize than what they were supposed to be learning. But that is easily fixable. I think the story approach is the method I prefer the most. You can weave a story around the content and keep the learners attention with it. It also seems to me like there would be more structure to it. As far as progress gauges go I must agree with Dave. They do get to the point of no return where they should simply not return. A character on an adventure is much more interesting to me and really will keep my attention and interest longer than a circular gauge ever will. Plus lets not forget that story telling has been effectively used in presentations for a long time now.

  7. This topic has been on my MIND lately (I just read “Made to Stick” by the brothers Heath and they’ve got some neat insight on motivating your audience).

    If you’re able to turn your course content into a goal-based scenario, I think you’ve pretty much won the battle of learner motivation from the get-go. But even with such an intrinsically motivating design, paying attention to how you frame things goes a long way. One example is that instead of congratulating your learner for completing the first module… you congratulate them on unlocking the second challenge instead. Subtle, but it gives your course momentum.

    Re: the story idea… (which is great!)… right now we’re in the early stages of development for a course that’s structured like an interactive movie. One of our goals is to establish some jeopardy at the begining of the course and then reveal bits of the ultimate solution as the learner moves through the course. Kind of like “Momento” where the audience sees Point B and then spends the rest of the movie trying to figure out how the character is possibly going to get there from Point A.

    Thanks for the great post. Food for thought for sure.

  8. Bill, I also like “Made to Stick,” and I recommend it to anyone who creates e-learning. And you make an important distinction between congratulating learners for completing the previous module (looking back) vs. congratulating them on unlocking the next step (looking forward).

    Your danger-with-a-mysterious-solution approach sounds like great fun.

  9. Have any of you had a progress bar on any e-learning course that tells the learner how much she has completed and how much farther to go? Our courses generally have a “course explorer” on the left that can show how many pages are remaining, but I have never really tried a “xyz% complete” kind of a progress bar. I am curious to know if any of you have tried it and whether it works (or irritates)? Thank You.

  10. Sam, thanks for your question.

    I’m not a big fan of progress bars because I associate them with linear courses that restrict navigation to the Next button. If instead we use a clickable menu that shows the learner where they are in the material, we don’t need a progress bar or “X of Y pages.”

    Also, a progress bar could reinforce the sense that a course is simply something to get through. If possible, I like to build in more emotional or job-related motivation.

    Does anyone else have an opinion?

  11. I use the idea of a story for the structure, context and flow of the learning. I also use branching in the story so it is like those pick-a-path books I used to read as a kid (choose your own adventure?). As far as challenges, completion and points etc go, to me these are all part of what make games (well adventure games on my Amiga 500 in 1990) so much fun.

    Story + Games + Learning theory = training the brain can digest (and people enjoy)

  12. @ Cathy

    Instead of a progress bar I have seen a great example of this on a Web site:

    See how when you go to different sections there is hidden treasure in the background (click on it). As you collect treasure points you can download the stuff in the tresure section.

    I’m going to adapt this concept into a module I’m writing now.