Frustration is rarely thought of a good thing, but you can’t achieve mastery without it. We all learn best by doing, and that usually means having to first do it wrong. Over and over. And over. And over again. When those wrongs pile up, annoyance sets in.
Saying that frustration in e-learning is a “good thing” is not always an easy sell. Maybe that’s because it overlooks an important caveat: frustration is not good in and of itself, but it’s an essential intermediary step toward achieving important new skills and a gaining a valid sense of accomplishment.
In an interview with Duelyst game designer John Treviranus, Nathan Grayson discusses the “gradient” of frustration players experience in various video games:
"When you first encounter something that’s frustrating, it’s infuriating. It’s, you know, a thousand forum posts of people saying, ‘This game is dead to me.’ But over time, assuming the tools are there, you can learn and acclimate until, eventually, that thing is a non-factor. You go from a ton of frustration to a little frustration to none at all."
The progression of a learner through the challenges of an e-learning course can follow a similar vector and achieve the same results. NogginLabs instructional designer Matt Young explains, “Failures experienced in training serve to identify misconceptions and open doors to new possibilities. In this way, the training can lead learners to apply the learning objectives in their real lives to thrive and excel.”
Frustration motivates growth when you have to tools to move past it. In case of Duelyst, these tools are often found among the online community of players. Treviranus says:
“I guess you could think about it in two camps. One kind of frustration is just terminal. It’s like, ‘This game frustrates me. I’m done.’ Another kind of frustration is, ‘I’m invested in this game, and something has happened that has frustrated me. I have this community here that will engage with me in talking about that frustration.’ Sometimes those players end up learning a lot about their own mistakes, or learning more about the cohesive design of the game by discussing it with one another."
A comparable solution can be found in e-learning courses by utilizing either a gamified social aspect or more common, direct methods, such as point-of-need feedback or in-course resources. Learners want to succeed, but that success is only valuable if it’s earned through a measurable change in behavior. In order to get there, mistakes need to be made.
Well-designed e-learning serves as a venue to make these errors without experiencing undesirable real-world consequences. By frustrating learners, we contest their misunderstandings and let them observe the outcomes of blunders without incurring actual harm. By interacting directly with content and experiencing both the wrong and the right, learners get an experience that’s more than moving to another screen—they truly advance to a whole new level.