Playing games with learners, or, don’t put them in Jeopardy

Twitter’s a great way to connect with people—or to fire off a wisecrack, which I’ve done a time or two.  Like last night in #lrnchat, when I said:

Every time someone launches another “elearning” with a Jeopardy game, a neuron loses its wings.

At 140 characters, Twitter encourages economy of expression, though you can’t easily come off as concise and nuanced in a single tweet.

Jeopardy games in on-the-job learning are a hot button for me.  Like someone on the bus whose MP3 music is just loud enough that you imagine a mosquito practicing the snare drums, that kind of interaction is mostly harmless but rarely enriching.

Monkey, see?

A Jeopardy game is often a quick fix, like a food-court burger, fries, and Coke when you’re slogging through the MegaMall.  At best, a mediocre choice.  Whatever kind of learning you’re trying to encourage, will dolling quiz questions up in the format of a 56-year-old game show  do the trick?

A more significant drawback is that Jeopardy‘s format unduly emphasizes recall and application.  You’re focusing learner attention on lower-value tasks.  And there’s the disadvantage that few jobs present people with “answers” to which they have to respond with questions.

Where to (re)draw the line

I’ve created interactions based on game formats, including Bingo.  Success came in part from listening to people like Thiagi (Sivasailam Thiagarajan).  One thing he suggests is that you play with, not within, the rules.

So if you must resort to a Jeopardy format, remember that no law requires people to answer with a question.  Nothing forces you to let the winner choose the next question.  It’s far more important to match what people do in the interaction with what they’ll do on the job.

Which explains Call Book Bingo.

Some years ago, a client replaced the paper “call book” used by its sales force with a custom computer application.  Most of the sales force hadn’t used computers before, so to them it felt like a huge change.  The instructor-led training stressed hands-on practice, which meant that by the second day the sales reps felt overwhelmed and unsure of themselves.

So we passed out the sophisticated learning aid you see here, then gave the directions:

  • Write a number between 1 and 75 on each line that has a number sign.  Mix ’em up.  Use each number only once.
  • When the “caller” (the instructor) gives a number, check your card to see if you have it.
  • If you do, write the answer to the question in that square.

That was pretty much it–except for the time we spent coming up with questions that involved looking up and interpreting things from all the important parts of the call book.  And phrasing them so there was only one right answer.  “What’s the weekly sales volume at International House of Widgets?”  “Does Myrna’s Accounting and Catering include Contract JT-42?”  “How many stores in ZIP code 66431 carry berm flanges?”

There’s a lot there that’s nothing like Bingo: no preprinted numbers, no B-I-N-G-O across the top.  Conversely, there’s a lot that’s very much like the real job: pertinent questions about accounts, and the need to research using the new, computerized tool.

No one complained about the variation from “real” Bingo.  In fact, most often the learners would ask to continue playing till everyone got at least one Bingo.   Often they’d start helping one another as “doing my job” won out over “winning this game in class.”

Play around a little

Mindlessly including a copy of a predictable “interaction” doesn’t make for better learning any more than riding the D train makes you a New Yorker.  As the noted instructional designer Mary Chapin Carpenter urges,

Show a little passion, baby, show a little style
Show the knack for knowing when
and the gift for knowing how…

If you’d like to acquire or strengthen that knack, try this advice from game designer Richard Powers.


Circle image adapted under a CC license from this original by Patrick Hoesly.