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Hello World | The problem with gamifying learning

The shiny new app that you or your children seem to be doing so well on may not really be helping you truly learn even as it gives you a sense of confidence.

June 23, 2021 / 01:24 PM IST

Note to readers: Hello world is a program developers run to check if a newly installed programming language is working alright. Startups and tech companies are continuously launching new software to run the real world. This column will attempt to be the "Hello World" for the real world. 

Ever feel like you’re making easy progress learning something online on an app but after a few days you completely blank out when you need to apply that learning? At the same time, do you still remember some of the toughest lessons you learned from the teachers you hated in school?

hello-world-logo-258x258This happens to me a lot. One day I’m acing tests online—blazing through lessons and scoring perfect marks. And then a few days later, I make a complete fool of myself trying to apply my lessons.

No, your memory hasn’t gotten worse with age. Neither is this a random phenomena. Turns out there’s a science to this paradox. In his book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized world, journalist Daniel Epstein explains this well. Online learning these days is a lot about giving hints and cues so that the learner progresses.

Designers and product folks call it gamification, and many of India’s ed tech firms take inspiration from games to good effect as they build their products for learners. It has its advantages. But like most things, it comes with a problem too. 

While gamification ensures that more people use a learning app and stick to it for longer, it may not be the most effective teaching strategy. Epstein points us to the story of a study by psychologists Nate Kornell and Herbert S. Terrace that was done on Oberon and Macduff—two monkeys trained to learn lists.

Oberon and Macduff were asked to respond to lists of photos in an order. They were allowed to request hints for some lists, and on other lists, they had to depend only on memory to generate the correct order of photos.

Kornell and Terrace found that “Training with hints resulted in high levels of initial performance, but accuracy dropped precipitously when the hints were removed on the criterion test. Training without hints led to relatively poor initial performance, but accuracy increased steadily and remained high on the criterion test.”

That is, if it’s learned the hard way, it sticks. “Active attempts to retrieve information from memory result in more learning than passive observation of the same information,” Kornell and Terrace wrote in a paper that was published by Psychological Science in 2007.

Nothing wrong with getting some help here and there. But progress, Epstein notes, shouldn’t happen too fast or you’ll end up like Oberon or Macduff, with a “knowledge mirage” that doesn’t help when it matters the most. “It will produce misleadingly high levels of immediate mastery that will not survive the passage of substantial periods of time.”

So the shiny new app that you or your children seem to be doing so well on may not really be helping you truly learn even as it gives you a sense of confidence. 

Jayadevan PK
Jayadevan PK is a storyteller who focuses on business and technology. His first book, Xiaomi: How a Startup Disrupted the Market and Created a Cult Following, was published by Harper Collins in April 2021.