“Learning should be fun!” But what’s “fun?”

Do haunted castles or wise wizards really make learning “fun?” Research suggests that developing mastery is what’s really fun. Learn more.

“Learning should be fun!” But what’s “fun?”

By Cathy Moore

We hear it all the time: “Learning should be fun!” Here’s how it’s often interpreted:

  • “Let’s use a Jeopardy-style game for the quiz.”
  • “Let’s have them explore a haunted museum, clicking on silly things to learn about data privacy.”
  • “We should have a funny-looking wizard explain how the inventory control system works, and he could use his wand to make the data appear on the screen.”
  • “How about a talking frog to explain the supply chain?”

You want me to listen to a talking frog?All of the above are examples of smearing “fun” lipstick on the pig of an information presentation. We’re not challenging the learners in any meaningful way, and we’re probably not motivating them, either.

Then why do we do it? Many people will say that exploring the museum to reveal all the bullet points about data privacy is gamelike and therefore “fun.” However, according to this well-researched post by game researcher Ben Lewis-Evans, it’s not that simple.

The post looks at how games (and in my opinion elearning) might affect dopamine, often presented as the “I like it!” hormone.

The upshot of the research Lewis-Evans examined “is that it appears that dopamine is not directly about pleasure (or learning) but rather it is about motivation or, if you want to be more sinister, compulsion.”

What’s really motivating?

Motivation doesn’t come from clicking a spider web to reveal a couple of sentences and move the progress bar one millimeter. According to Lewis-Evans’ review of the research, many other elements are better at motivating us. Here are the ones that caught my eye:

  • “Rewards should be meaningful.”
  • “Learning to get and want a certain reward is enhanced by immediate feedback about what behavioral response produced that reward.”
  • “People tend to dislike rewards that are delivered in a way that is perceived to be controlling.”
  • “Feelings of mastery, self-achievement, and effortless high performance appear to be quite rewarding.”

Feelings of mastery should be our goal. Clicking a messy desk to reveal preachy warnings about filing forms builds zero mastery. Successfully making increasingly difficult choices in a realistic scenario is far more likely to build a sense of mastery.

If a stakeholder wants you to add alien spacecraft, treasure hunts, or talking animals, they mean well. However, you might respond that building mastery provides the real fun. So rather than spending time drawing the spacecraft, we should use that time to design challenging, realistic activities that give people a sense of accomplishment.


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19 comments on ““Learning should be fun!” But what’s “fun?”

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    1. Hi, this argument comes back a number of times: e-learning is bad, let’s make it bearable. I do not agree with it – we should keep trying! It is a challenge. I like to use two simple comparisons: pub and network gaming. People gather up in the pub and drink and talk. We as humans – like to talk. So why can’t we make virtual training a similar experience?
      And gaming: if you are in a network game, you do not feel that it is a problem your friend is not with you in his human form, as you are both in a labyrinth killing aliens. Same in virtual training (i am teaching an ERP solution): if we are all in a system and trying to accomplish different tasks – who cares we are not in the same room?

  1. I’ve been wondering about this for years. What makes computer games so compelling when they are clearly a time-waster and little more? What makes Candy Crush Saga so addictive? GamaSutra looked at that in July. And its success cannot possibly be that easy to duplicate or we would see millions of Angry Birds, Farmville, and Words With Friends clones running amok. But we don’t. The few truly addicting sensations are just that – very few in comparison to the number of games that are out there. Clearly, “gamification” is not the answer on its own, and even the idea of “fun” seems ill-defined as you have pointed out (thank you very much). As always, a quick fix is never enough to overcome bad design. Keep up the good work and saying what so few in our business are.

  2. Trainers need to answer to their audiences, the learners. If we can’t look at an e-learning module and answer the “WIIFM (what’s in it for me?) question, then we haven’t motivated the participants to learn anything new. That being said, there are a number of great resources to make the e-learning design meaningful for learners, but the best technology cannot overwrite a lack of purpose for the training.

  3. Hi Cathy,

    Great post! It’s interesting to me though that you assume these things to be mutually exclusive; ergo if I put a treasure hunt in an elearning course, then I am merely covering up the fact that my course sucks. In my mind, this is similar to the ‘PowerPoint sucks’ argument of a few years back. The point is – don’t blame the vessel. Jeopardy games have become the bad guy of elearning design. But really, what’s wrong with setting well-researched, challenging questions to a jeopardy theme? It’s not the medium that’s the problem here – it’s simply how they are used.

    1. Hi Wendy, thanks for your comment. Unfortunately, in my experience, the two have been pretty much mutually exclusive. I’ve seen a ton of elearning, and when there’s a treasure hunt, for example, the experience is basically “click to reveal information,” and then there’s a quiz to check my short-term memory. I’m concerned that we spend a lot of development time making an island and treasure map and all that when we could use that time to create more cognitively challenging stuff.

      I’ve seen (and in my checkered past I wrote) a ton of Jeopardy quizzes. I don’t remember any that asked challenging questions that helped me apply my knowledge to a realistic situation, because thanks to the Jeopardy structure, an answer can only be 100% right or 100% wrong, and the feedback is limited to “Incorrect!” + maybe a generic blurb that doesn’t specifically address the mistake I just made. If there’s a Jeopardy template that allows contextual feedback at least, that would be an improvement. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen it.

      I should have made clearer in the post that when we apply a layer of “fun” to something, we should ask ourselves, “Are we just presenting information in a less tedious way, or are people actually having to make challenging decisions?”

      1. My professional background is in classroom teaching as well as teacher education. I am currently working on a master’s in ID and just read a couple chapters in our text book dealing with cognitive theories and the learning brain. As a classroom teacher and TE course instructor, memory and motivation were always at the heart of our discussions about learning and knowing. I consider learning to be the process taken in the journey of knowing. True knowledge is what we own and are able to use in transferable ways. It is learning that has transformed to knowledge.

        So, while reading this post, the links, and subsequent comments what struck me is that there really are no absolutes and what I deem to be fun might not be fun to others. Now, when we consider what it takes to motivate the brain to learn we get into some really complex considerations and I agree with the theories around mastery in learning as being a strong motivating factor in learning that lends itself to knowledge. The process of learning is an active one. I can understand why we look to games and the act of “doing” something to activate learning. But, the question we need to consider has to do with the purpose or objective dealing with the learning outcome. What is the purpose in using the game versus other options?

        We also must be reflective of our instructional designs and actual outcomes in the past. If the act of the game becomes (based on reflective past experiences) the main act then we have lost focus on active knowledge building. And, I do think that this happens the majority of the time. The game becomes busy work or busy devices meant to carry information for the purpose of building knowledge, but actually silences the active inquiry process of learning. The objective became to centered on the method of carrying the information i.e. the game when it should have been learner centered with plenty of flexibility for the brain to actively participate.

        Ormrod, Schunk, and Gredler (2008) argue that “learners are active seekers and processors of information” (p. 50) and that the considerations of how the brain learns and remembers is complex. Because of this I agree with your comment that “Jeopardy structure, an answer can only be 100% right or 100% wrong, and the feedback is limited to “Incorrect!” + maybe a generic blurb that doesn’t specifically address the mistake I just made. If there’s a Jeopardy template that allows contextual feedback at least, that would be an improvement” (Moore, 2013). True mastery requires the learner to engage with working memory, long-term memory, and have the opportunity to reflect and process stimuli.

        Learning is never a dichotomy between something as simple as right and wrong and any one answer (even in math). In an article by Rick Nauert (2010) he discusses recent research done on the active versus passive learning brain and how the hippocampus responded in the support of memory. “The study found significant differences in brain activity in the active and passive learners. Those who had active control over the viewing window were significantly better than their peers at identifying the original objects and their locations, the researchers found” (Nauert, 2010). So, active engagement is key versus the more passive right/wrong answer format in games intended to activate learning and the goal of sustained knowledge.

        C Moore. (2013, September 2). “Learning should be fun!” But what’s “fun?” [Blog comment]. Retireved from really/

        Nauert, R. (2010, December 6). How active learning improves memory. Retrieved from memory/21563.html

        Ormrod, J., Schunk, D., & Gredler, M. (2009). Learning Theories and Instruction. Laureate Education, Inc. Custom edition. New York: Pearson

      2. Hi Cathy,

        I really enjoyed reading your post regarding learning and fun. Not being an educator, I am really learning a lot regarding learning theories and how people absorb and retain information. I have spent the last two weeks analyzing my own learning processes and trying to determine how that might be applied to instructional design. Before reading your post I would have thought that couching instruction in a game would have been perfect in order to make learning fun. But in retrospect, when you apply the Jeopardy analogy, I can see where that would be ineffective. After all, the Jeopardy model is more suited to testing actual knowledge, than teaching information. (By the way, Jeopardy is one of my favorite shows.)

      3. Hi Cathy,

        In general, I agree with your assessment of playing Jeopardy in the classroom. Recently though, I experienced the handling of it that was not only fun but educational. This was because the learners had varied healthcare backgrounds and were given time to back up their answers with examples of when something was true or, in their experience, when the “correct” answer was wrong. It sparked a lot of discussion, positive argument and knowledge transfer between the learners.
        Unfortunately, the key here is that there needs to be time built into the schedule to accomodate such discussion. Plus, some of the Jeopardy answers need to be deliberately ambiguous to spark the discussion.
        It was terrific to see a Jeopardy experience be both fun and valuable to the learners.

  4. Hear, hear! Couldn’t have said it better myself. I questioned the wisdom of a crossword puzzle to teach people about compliance with FDA regulations and was huffily informed that “people like it.” Too often, the “fun” is like a heavy cloak laid over the content without any consideration for the behavior the designer is hoping to affect.

  5. I have a saying: ‘I’d rather be healthy and start a piece of online learning – or any teaching – with a scenario, story or case study, than be rich, poor or sick’.

  6. Due to the vast amount of technological resources available, there is no reason for e-learning to be on the boring side. E-learners also have choices as to where they go to obtain the education they are seeking. In my opinion, it is important to ensure our e-learners are engaged, motivated and are taking part in real-life applications. I have taken several courses online, some have not been the most exciting due to the delivery method while others were extremely interesting and engaging. I stumbled upon a blog that by an author who does some interesting videos on the subject. It’s worth a look if you have the time.

  7. I pulled a fast one over the eyes of 80 staff member at my workplace that ultimately made training more than just fun, but a great success. After covertly sneaking my idea over to the Directors office for the go ahead nod, I briefed my training staff over the event s to take place and tasks to complete. To share a hint, the rest of the staff loves food. More to follow on that. The brainstorming came into play when mandatory annual training was upcoming and really wanted to inject a twist on the entire experience. Lets face it – when annual, recurring or remedial training is necessary, employees will create doctor’s appointments, a sudden head cold or all the sudden have a flooded basement to tend to. Those are just three of the many excuses to get out of some sort of training. I am fortunate enough to have a rather large classroom that is directly adjacent to yet another. A two hour training period was set for what was to be an hour long presentation. Hmmm, why two hours? I can imagine the thoughts of the rest of the staff and witnessed sudden depression amongst many prior to the evolution. Hee, hee for me on the inside.

    Soon after the staff entered the room, took their seats and signed the roster that was passed around, the training began. The only assets that were missing were the podium, projection screen and media equipment. Quite odd for a training session I would say. The trainer introduced himself and purposely left out the training subject. My there were some that had those long faces we often see when training is ready to begin. His next comment was asking everyone to stand up and leave the room via the adjacent [classroom] doorway. As they entered that room they noticed an entire setup of food items arranged in potluck fashion. Indeed classroom desks and chairs (some added) were there still in there, but this time it was for dual purpose. The staff was invited to partake in the food and take a seat so the actual training could start. Needless to say, the entire training was a success, interaction/involvement was beyond reproach and fun was clearly injected.

    No, this was not a lure or it would have been disclosed well before the training date. It was purely to prove that training, no matter where, when and what on can be a good time for both teacher and learner. In the fine world of instructional design our thoughts are only limited to our imagination. How would we want training to go and what moisture can we inject into it towards peaking interests of our learners. We must all have a creative vision. In the ID community, there are no limits on these thoughts. I often think back when I was a child and what I would do to make things fun. Shake the world, disrupt the boring norm and press on with sending a message that will talked about for quite some time. In essence, be that mover, shaker and rock star that we all have the capability to be.

    1. Hi,
      Great idea Dave ! I have used this tactic before as a “lure,” which truthfully also worked very well. I believe that with some of fantastic technological advances, we often get lost and forget that sometimes it is the simple interventions can make all the difference. I am currently in a Master’s level class where the objective is to effectively use technology to enhance learning experiences. But as an educator, when do all the bells and whistles get so loud that they drown out the message? I have spent hours attaching a YouTube video to a PowerPoint or adding a Wordle … but in comparison message and technology administration time are so disproportional. Do I attempt to bring in every type of tool in an attempt to find at least one method that appeals to everyone? I just feel like it might all be too much … what happens when students seek employment? Are we setting them up to be engaged only when entertained?

  8. Thank you for sharing such a nice post.Our website is an online education adding fun to the learning with your ideas will defenitely help us to satisfy our learner’s needs and it can make our course contents more interesting.

  9. Great article. One of the things I have been struggling with is trying to figure out how to make our e-learning engaging and interesting, without dumbing it down and insulting the learner. I completely agree with your approach that real-world situations should be used to assist in the learning process. If it’s something the learner can relate to it will have an immediate impact.