Duolingo Gets Both Gamification and Learning Design Right


We were collecting examples for a gamification webinar we conducted last September, and I was intrigued to know about Duolingo, the gamified language learning app. I downloaded the app immediately, but though it listed over 20 languages, there was none that I specifically wanted to learn. The intrigue intensified as I read about its features and rave reviews, but at that point, I had no time to experience the app by learning a new language, so I went ahead and delivered the webinar, citing Duolingo as an example of gamification done right. I gathered this much from users and gamification experts alike.

But Duolingo remained at the back of my mind. Recently I came across an article which cited a research finding that the “brain networks [of those who learned a new language] had become better integrated, which means they’re more flexible and allows for faster and more efficient learning”. This caught my attention. Who doesn’t like to become smarter, better integrated etc. ;-)? So I decided to check it out.

I wasn’t particularly interested in any of the languages on offer (by the way, did I mention that Duolingo is entirely free?), so I randomly chose Spanish. English, of course, remained my source language, the language through which I would be learning Spanish.

And here’s what I experienced:

When you start, you get to decide on your goals – the amount of work you want to put in everyday; choosing from:
– Casual (10 XP per day)
– Regular (20 XP per day)
– Serious (30 XP per day)
– Insane (50 XP per day)

(XP, or experience points, are awarded to you for completing lessons.) I chose casual, which meant I would have to spend 5-10 minutes a day, completing a single lesson each day.

When you reach your goal a few days in a row, you get a streak, which you have to work to maintain. For example, if you miss a couple of days’ lessons, your streak goes down. Streak basically refers to your knowledge of words in that lesson, and if you don’t keep up, it means you are forgetting those words, therefore your streak weakens to indicate that. Makes perfect sense. Did I hear someone say forgetting curve :-)?

Duolingo sends regular reminders to meet your daily goal, encouraging you to reach longer learning streaks. These reminders are fun and personalized, suggesting what you will be learning next, and motivating you to keep practicing.


As you complete lessons and gain XP, you level up, earning lingots. Lingot is a virtual currency that allows you to buy various things from a store, right from dressing up your owl (the Duolingo mascot), to power ups and extra lessons. Currently none of these ‘items on display’ sound interesting to me, so I haven’t ventured into any shopping as yet.


Progress indicators are all over the place in Duolingo. The lessons are arranged based on a virtual skill tree, and keep coloring as you advance. Within each lesson, you get to see how many more questions you have to answer, as well as how many you got right in a row.


I haven’t practiced for more than a week now, and here’s what my progress looks like.


Duolingo is highly social. You can comment on and discuss specific questions from lessons, and get answers from others in the community. I’ve found this feature to be especially useful, in the absence of ‘why this works the way it works’ explanations from Duolingo.


You can add friends from your networks, and have a leaderboard comparing your score (XP) with theirs. You can also see what they’ve been up to, including their latest comments, who they are following and who is following them, as well as levels gained.

Cross a certain level, and you get a badge, which you can share on your social network. For the record, I’m 7% fluent in Spanish as I’m writing this post.

A much-touted feature is the Immersion area, which asks you to translate some text in a collaborative space, thereby helping you practice your language skills even more, and awarding you XP incentives for participation and contribution.

The lessons themselves are designed really well. No theory, no grammar rules, just a multi-modal learning system which uses visual and auditory cues to help you learn new words.

You start on the lower end of a skill tree, learning really simple words first, and then naturally and effortlessly progress towards more complex terms and constructs.

Repetition, a huge factor for success of any learning, language learning especially, has been used very effectively in Duolingo. Words and phrases you learned in Lesson 1 reappear in Lesson 3, in newer avatars, and in new constructs. Unconsciously you begin internalizing them.

Having said all that, the app is not without its flaws. My biggest gripe, from a learning design perspective, is the blatant implausibility of distractors. Many a time, the correct answer is a dead giveaway, either due to the construct, or some silly reason like punctuation. Check out the screenshot below.

  1. Looking at the choices, I’m pretty sure the sentence has to start with ‘No’ because that is the only word which is in title case. (In this case, the word is obvious, in others, it’s not.)
  2. When I’ve dragged four words to form a sentence, it’s way too obvious that the fifth word is ‘cook’, since that is the only verb, amongst the remaining options.


But despite such shortcomings, Duolingo is one fantastic language learning experience, neatly wrapped in a ‘gamified’ package. I hope and crave for more learning experiences to be designed so well.

¡Buen trabajo Duolingo! ¡Seguid así!

Rich Learner. Poor Learner.


Evan, Laura, and Allen work in the L&D department of a large company. One morning, their manager Helen calls them into her cabin. She says “Congrats! You’re going to DevLearn in Vegas!”

Celebrations ensue, and the three excitedly get ready for the journey. Before leaving, they individually make plans for the trip. Here’s what each of their plans looks like:


At the end of the trip, I’d like to:

  • Come away with at least three ideas for improving my learning design
  • Connect with people who blog on learning, especially those who talk about social learning and community management
  • Attend at least four sessions on mobile learning (two of them possibly Clark Quinn’s and Nick Floro’s???)
  • Visit Aunt Maurice

Before leaving:

  • Buy formal shoes


At the conference:

  • Attend at least 9 concurrent sessions; squeeze in 12 if possible
  • Make notes and consolidate for later reference

In Vegas:

  • Go shopping


  • 3 days of conference
  • Wed Evening: Dinner with friends
  • Thurs Evening: Relax in the room
  • Friday Evening: Gambling at The Venetian!
  • Saturday: Grand Canyon
  • Sunday: Flight back

After coming back, Helen asks each of them to present their experiences from the trip.

Can you guess what would have happened?

You’re right! Evan had a clear set of takeaways to present from the conference, while Laura, though a bit scattered, did have a few points to talk about. Allen, unfortunately, had nothing substantial to present. What he did learn at the conference had quickly evaporated, thanks to his lack of goals and focus on learning.

Let’s think about this for a moment. Isn’t this something we encounter all the time? Learners, without as much as an explanation of what to expect, being pushed to attend a day-long training event on compliance (or code of conduct, or communication, or some other topic). Or being forced to take a bunch of long and context-less e-learning courses.

So, unless the learner is in ‘receptive’ mode (by that I mean they are emotionally and intellectually ready to receive the content), it is highly unlikely that a learning event is going to be of any benefit to them. This was exactly what we saw happening with Evan, Laura and Allen above. Despite attending the same conference, and probably sitting through the same sessions and meeting the same bunch of people, the amount of learning that each of them got what was directly proportionate to how ‘receptive’ they were.

So, how do we ensure this? How do we make sure that learners are ‘receptive’ to the learning experience that we’ve so painstakingly put together? Here are a few ideas:

1. Tell them the why and the how

This is the ‘What’s In It For Me’, or WIIFM, for the learner. It answers two key questions:

a. Why is this topic important? Not to the business, not to the organization, but to me, the learner, as an individual.
b. How is it going to help me in my life / work?

WIIFM features prominently in Instructional Design discussions, but gets missed out, or gets improperly implemented in many cases.

But get this one right, and we can have learners hanging on to every word in the course.

2. Make an emotional connect

There is a reason that people love stories. And it’s for the same reason that they are addicted to movies and games.

Joy, sorrow, challenge, competition, surprise, suspense, fear, anger, trust… these are just some of the emotions we can draw upon in our courses to keep learners coming back for more.

3. Address a need

Ultimately, the course needs to help the learner get better at something useful. Specifically, it should deliver what it promised to deliver in the WIIFM stage above.

A classic example of this is YouTube videos. It doesn’t matter how good or bad a video is. If it addresses my need of the moment, say ‘how to fix my washing machine’, I would still watch it over and over until I get the information right.

4. Make it byte sized

No one has the time or the inclination to go through a long-winded course that covers every little obscure detail of the policy you’re trying to cover. Make it to the point, and learners are much more likely to be receptive to the experience.

5. Make it optional

This has long remained a pet peeve of mine. Forcibly making learners sit through a class and having them switch off their cell phones does NOT equate to their minds being open to what the class is offering. Same goes for locking down the Next button in the hope that they will read and absorb every little piece of information presented on the screen.

In fact, these strategies have the opposite effect. An individual (especially an adult) who does not feel in control of their circumstances is very unlikely to have an open, receptive mind that is conducive for learning.

Explain the benefits, sell them the idea, and leave it to them to decide whether or not to take the course.

So what have I missed? What other ideas can we use to help learners become ready to receive the content? I would love to hear from you.

5 Ways To Avoid Overwhelming Learners

overwhelmed_learnerThe deluge is upon us! Run for cover!

Well, I’m not talking about an invasion or a natural calamity. I’m talking about the stuff that we are faced with every minute of every day – the torrent of information that keeps hitting us, threatening to sweep us off our feet and drown us, if we’re not careful.

Ah, the curse of social media, which constantly bombards us with information from all directions. Combine this with a heady dose of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), and we can be sure to get inundated in the oncoming flood, without retaining much that is useful.

I have a fairly simple practice for handling social media. There are a select few in the industry who I really respect and admire, and I therefore want to listen to their opinions. Over the years, I’ve ruthlessly eliminated any kind of distraction, which basically is any information that is not from this select few. Of course, I keep editing and pruning this list.

My challenge is, this ‘select few’ runs into a few dozens, if not more. So, what for many is typically a barrage of irrelevant information concealing a few precious gems, I have a steady stream of high quality, valuable content, which of course I don’t want to miss out on (this is real FOMO in action, you see).

Okay, having said that, this post is not about how I handle social media. It’s about we can ensure that learners don’t get washed away in a similar onslaught of information in the courses we design.

How many times do we end up having to include way more than the average individual can digest in a one hour course, or in a day’s workshop? Because the SME insisted “they have to know this”. Or the unit manager said “this part is mandatory”. We see their point, so we end up adding that piece of content.

A drop here, and a drop there. And slowly but surely, the drops add up to form the deluge.

We don’t of course want to overwhelm learners with too much information. Because we know that an overwhelmed mind is ill-equipped for learning. Scientists and researchers have time and again proved that cognitive overload (the situation when we’re faced with more info than we can handle) is actually detrimental to the learning process.

So what can we do to avoid putting learners in such a situation? Here are a few approaches I can think of:

1. Break up the information into smaller, byte-sized pieces

Content chunked into digestible units can go a long way in helping learners absorb the information easily, without feeling overwhelmed. We should, of course, take care to ensure that this is done well, and that the chunks are not too interdependent.

2. Distribute the information over a period of time

If it is not critical that the audience should consume the entire content in a short time (applicable for instructor-led courses where traveling is involved), it would help to deliver the content piecemeal over a stretched duration. Referred to as spaced practice, this approach has been seen to have tremendous benefits for learning and retention.

3. Create information loops

Chunking and spaced practice can only work well if sufficient repetition is built in to allow for absorption into long term memory. Therefore, whatever strategies are adopted, make sure to create these information loops, which are basically about summarizing and repeating content at varied intervals.

4. Cover each point in greater depth, or provide context

In a recent project, we were required to help learners recall safety precautions they had to take before undertaking any maintenance work. Learners had gone through in-depth training on these safety precautions, and the client insisted that it would be sufficient if we added a line mentioning this, along with a generic image indicating safety. We did, but in addition, we added a couple of lines containing a super quick overview of the safety precautions, and provided a link to the original course if they wished to review it. Result: the overview and the link helped learners better recall what they had learned in the original training.

5. Increase the duration of the course, if required

Implementing any or all of the above approaches might mean an increase in the duration of the course… which is okay, in my opinion. Ultimately, what counts is that learners have understood the content well enough that they are able to translate it back in their workplace.

What do you think? What other approaches can we use to make sure that we don’t end up overwhelming learners? I look forward to your comments.