There Ain’t No Better Teacher Than A Mistake

… as long as it leads to a lesson learned.

learning_from_mistakesIt was a series of online sessions on instructional design that I was facilitating. The audience was a smart group, comprising mostly of people from HR and talent development. Needless to say, the session was very interactive, and as I had come to expect during the series, they were questioning me and challenging me at every juncture.

I was extolling the virtues of well-designed multiple choice questions, and to make the point about options which are grammatically incorrect and aren’t parallel with each other, I had used a question from Cathy Moore’s blog post on MCQs, by giving full credit to Cathy, of course. Here’s how the question read, along with the options.

We can confuse learners when we:
a. fail to actually complete the sentence we started in the question.
b. inconsistent grammar in the options.
c. sometimes we veer off into another idea entirely.
d. wombats.

One of the participants asked me what word ‘wombats’ means, and I confidently replied that the word doesn’t exist. He accepted my response, and we moved on. But I kept thinking about the question, and later that night, I thought I’d google it, just in case, to see if it had any meaning. And, to my surprise, I learned that wombats are short four-legged creatures which are native to Australia.

Caught off guard and a bit embarrassed, I nevertheless decided to share my newfound knowledge with participants. Here’s what I wrote in the designated discussion forum:

In Session 3, I had used a Multiple Choice Question borrowed from Cathy Moore’s blog, in which one of the options she had listed was ‘Wombats’. The point that Cathy (and I) was trying to make was that sometimes the options are so obviously incorrect that learners have no trouble guessing the right answer, thereby passing the test without understanding the topic or having to think about it.

One of you asked what is the meaning of ‘Wombats’, and I confidently replied “it’s not a word”. My confidence came from the understanding that Cathy frequently uses fictional names, places and situations. But I wanted to double check this, and when I did, to my surprise I found that Wombats are short-legged animals that are native to Australia.

Apologies for the confusion caused because of this.

Lesson learned: Do not assume anything.

It was a mistake I’d made, and my realization and subsequent sharing of the same with participants sparked a discussion unlike any other thread in the entire forum.

This got me thinking: So what can we do to leverage mistakes in the courses we design? How can we make it possible for the learner to ‘stumble upon’ mistakes, and glean lessons from them? Because after all, mistakes are seldom made randomly. They represent manifestations of long-held beliefs or misconceptions. We don’t want to frustrate learners of course, but their moment of realization can turn out to be a huge learning point for them.

Here are a few possible ideas:

1. Use them as options in scenarios, and provide detailed feedback. While the options can reflect the common misconceptions, extensive feedback against each of the incorrect options can help explain why the option is wrong, and what would work better in that scenario. Note that such feedback against the correct option would also work well, to consolidate the learner’s understanding of why that option is correct.

2. Where possible, have them justify their choice of options. So if a question reads “What is the beverage that has highest consumption in the world?”, no matter what their choice, have them answer a follow-up question which reads something like “Why do you think so?”. This can help them think through their answer, and possibly even correct their original choice.

3. Provide an option for learners to correct their mistakes and redo the scenario. This can help address any frustrations with early failure.

4. Run a scenario and make learners point out mistakes. This is very similar to the scenario in the first point above, except that here the learner doesn’t make the decisions. Instead, they get to point out the mistakes that another character in the scenario is making, a nice relief from the decision-making scenario, and another great way to learn.

5. Tell failure stories. We often get enamored in success stories, but they don’t always give the full picture, nor do they tell anything about the struggles that went into the process. Failure stories, on the other hand, can teach as well as inspire, and give a helping hand to students who make similar mistakes.

6. And last but not the least, it is not a bad idea to include them as part of your explanation. As in, call out a mistake that’s commonly made, and say “DON’T DO THAT!”.

Finally, it’s important for any learning event to emphasize a growth mindset so that learners do not associate mistakes with shame, and view them instead as learning opportunities. Of course, a single learning event would be hard-pressed to do something like this on its own, but we can always try, right?

What other strategies can you think of to lead learners from their moment of ‘oops’ to ‘ah-a’?

Learning Designers! Boring Bullets are NOT Your Worst Enemy!

Congratulations! You can now play games at work!

This was the underlying theme of a compliance course that I recently had the opportunity to review. Designed as a highly engaging game, the course set you off on a hunt for clues to find an elusive parrot, traveling to various cities and learning about compliance along the way. As you unearthed a clue, a slice of compliance information got revealed, followed by a short quiz on the information. Your performance in the quiz earned you gadgets that helped you in your search for more clues.

As a game, the piece struck all the right notes. I got involved right from the word ‘go’. I wanted to find more clues. I wanted to collect more gadgets. I wanted to win.


Throughout the experience, I kept thinking “but what about learning?”. Because nowhere on my quest did I ever get to think about compliance. My main focus in answering the quiz questions was to earn gadgets on the way to unearthing my next clue.

This was probably because the core content was still presented as just that – content. The quiz was tarted up to be engaging, as a means to an end, and not an end in itself.

And, though the course told me at the beginning that “finding more clues will give you access to more compliance information”, I kept asking “why?”. Nowhere during the experience could I connect with why the compliance information was important to me, or how it was going to help me do my job better. Neither the content nor the quiz questions had anything to do with application. Written in typical legal-speak, the content portion of the course explained the ‘what’, while entirely missing the ‘why’ and the ‘how’.


Now, this is typically what Cathy Moore calls “putting lipstick on a pig”. If a course is not intrinsically interesting, then adding bells and whistles in the form of games and adventures can only serve to improve its cosmetic value. The core content remains in the same state – boring and ineffective.

I can understand why this happens. The word ‘compliance’ can conjure up images of boring, banal courses that spew out bullet point after bullet point of lackluster content. And, it’s exciting to think about making the course game-like, to add colors and audio and video, and challenges and what not, just to make it more ‘engaging’.


Cammy Bean refers to this as “clicky-clicky bling-bling” – a course that ranks high on the ‘bling’ thing, but fails to address its basic mandate of learning and performance improvement.

Bling is not a bad thing, per se. It’s like great packaging. Who isn’t attracted to products that are packaged well? But when applied to a bad product (one that doesn’t work as intended), it becomes “clicky-clicky bling-bling”.


What can we do to steer clear of “clicky-clicky bling-bling”, and make sure the course addresses the primary need it was commissioned to address? Here are some strategies I think we can follow:

1. Start by defining the goal, or the ‘What’s In It For Me’ (WIIFM) for the business. This is what will help us justify why the course needs to exist in the first place, and align the course design with what the business needs.

2. In addition to the ‘what’, make sure to amply address the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ for learners. This will help them understand that the game (or concept) exists to support the course, and not the other way around.

3. Put the learners in a context that closely mirrors real life, and have them make the decisions that they would have to make in real life.

4. Make each of the choices (the decisions that they would have to make in the scenario / context above) plausible, ensuring that they think before making a choice.

5. Let the scenarios and choices challenge learners the right way. Have them think hard about the situation and the consequences that they would have to face as a result of their decisions, not about the sentence construct and what it might mean before making a choice. Which leads me to my next point…

6. Write the content, and the quiz, in plain English. For example:

“When you see a violation, please report using the third-party hotline. You can do so confidentially and anonymously, which means you don’t have to fear retaliation.”

…is a lot simpler and sounds way better than:

“No employee will be retaliated against for reporting any known or suspected compliance violation. The organization makes reporting violations easy by utilizing an unbiased third-party vendor who receives Hotline calls. These calls are taken both confidentially and anonymously.”

7. Allow people a way out. I can’t overstate the importance of this. As learning designers, we might find a game or a concept very interesting, but it’s possible that learners consider it a dud. Don’t make them suffer through it. Allow them to take a well-designed assessment, and if they want to review information, let them go through a PDF with all the content. Because at the end of the day, what matters is that they learn and can perform better, not that they win the game.

What other strategies can you think of to avoid clicky-clicky bling-bling?