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April 09, 2007

Create a Mystery

Do your e-learning courses start with a list of objectives? Do you "tell the learners what you are going to tell them, tell them and then tell them what you just told them?" Do you use the page-of-text, page-of-text, page-of-text, multiple choice question, repeat model of course design? Is your only instructional strategy to "gain attention"?

If you answered "yes" to any of the above questions, you need to redesign your design of instruction. Take a step backward and think about how you can build curiosity and intrigue into your online courses. Curiosity is what makes us watch those crazy Law and Order shows...we want to know who did it and why. Exploit this natural tendency.

Start your online course with a mystery...why did Jane get the $10,000 bonus...what sales skills did she apply to achieve success? How did Mark injure his arm...because he failed to follow safety procedures. Why is the project failing, what can Abbott do to rescue the failing project?

These are all great ways to start a course...allow the learner to have some feeling of mystery or curiosity. Remember how you wanted to watch Scooby Doo to see who was the ghost? The same applies to adults only they are not as obvious about it. Scooby_doo_2

When faced with a problem or a new situation, adults wonder what the correct course of action might be and how to apply the skills they already possess. Create training that puts employees in situations they may encounter and force them to think through what they would do and how they would do it. This "mystery' or "curiostiy technique is a different design than traditonal ID but can be more effective and it can be used in a classroom or online. In the classroom model your instruction after one of those dinner/theatre murder mysteries. Online, model it after Law and Order.

Start with a problem and don't tell the learner how to solve it...just provide "clues" or instruction on methods that might be used and let the learner take it from there. You will be suprised by the results.

Karl Kapp is the Assistant Director of Bloomsburg University’s Institute for Interactive TechnologiesLogoggg_2 and a professor of instructional technology. See his own blog, Kapp Notes for information on the convergence of learning and technology. He is the author of the book Gadgets, Games and Gizmos for Learning.   


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Karl, I have just started a review of our 90 classes on-line, and none have any mystery or curoisity building beginnings. Thanks for the ideas...
Steve in Iowa

Ken Knitter

Two points of refinement on your post that I think need to be added. First, while such a technique can be highly effective for engaging the learner, it is not appropriate in all course types. For courses where you want to develop critical thinking skills it can be an appropriate technique. Whereas, for highly technical courses such as aircraft systems type training this type of technique may distract the student from the key instructional elements.

Secondly, I would say the technique is less about creating mystery and to paraphrase the presentation Dave Chalk gave at the Training 2007 conference, 'how humans seem to be hardwired to learn through narratives'. As such mystery is only one of a number of narrative techniques that could be used to engage the learner.

Karl Kapp

Good points, however, what about questions like "why won't this aircraft engine start?"

"How can we properly wire this aircraft system?"

"How do we ensure that the aircraft doesn't encounter any system failures?"

"Why was the pilot forced into an emergency landing?"

"Why did this aircraft react the way it did?"

I think mystery can be added to technical courses as well. Also, I agree that narratives are part of our learning and different types of narratives are appropriate for different types of learning.

Thanks for your thoughtful and insightful comments, much appreciated.


Karl Kapp

Steve, glad to help. I wish you luck in reconfiguring some of your courses, drop by to let me know how it works for you.



We are generating eLearning program now and while we have very interactive instructor led, I have been concerned there wasn't a comparable "buy" for online learning. I think this is the new track I was looking for.
Thank you!


I can't agree with you more. Using mystery in creating training materials will infuse enthusiasm and excitement on the part of the learner. Why people watch movies is because of the mystery. You have a point.

Karl Kapp

Annmarie and Lauren, thanks for your comments.

Lauren--let's us know how the mystery-approach works for your online courses. It will be a little more demanding from a design stand point but I think you will find the extra effort worth it.

Annmarie, I agree with you on the enthusiasm and excitement...that is one of the reasons I watch movies and read books. Humans are naturally curious and want to have everything "solved" so we are naturally engaged when we encounter a mystery.

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