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4 Simple Ways to Improve Course Design — and Student Motivation

Working at Knewton, I’ve had a lot of opportunity to think about design trends and how they reflect the importance of “flow”—a mental state of operation in which a person has achieved single-minded immersion and completely focused motivation while performing an activity.

The interface of Knewton Math Readiness helps students achieve this state of flow, so that they can experience as many learning (a-ha!) moments as possible. If you’re looking to build a product that engages users in some kind of activity, here’s some advice based on my experience:

1. Nix the traditional website model.

In contrast with the traditional website model which requires users to wade through site content, the interface of Knewton Math Readiness is stripped down and task-based (with large call-to-action buttons and clear indicators of progress), so that students are never confused about what they should be doing, or stuck doing one activity for too long. In other words, it’s tough not to keep tackling challenges and moving forward while working in the course. The experience is geared for continuous action, synthesis, and reflection.

2. Carefully consider colors and fonts.

Even though Knewton Math Readiness is built on an adaptive learning platform that employs sophisticated technology, we didn’t want to use the brushed steel, post-apocalyptic look that is sometimes associated with high-tech products. As a result, Knewton Math Readiness employs a warm, friendly palette that reduces eye strain—an important thing to consider when designing a product that users may be looking at for hours at a time.

3. Use tablet constraints to your advantage.

In designing Knewton Math Readiness, the team was inspired by the coarse, less refined actions that characterize activity on a hand-held tablet. In an age of giant monitors, the constraints of a tablet are somewhat old-fashioned, and yet, they help to streamline the user experience and increase the amount of mental space (“working memory”) a user has to work on problems. In other words, if users are exerting less mental energy to interact with a product, they have more time to devote to the task or challenge at hand. In this way, tablet-inspired limitations ensure that the interface is conducive to learning—that elusive mental state where students are making unexpected connections and organizing information differently in their minds.

4. Don’t be concerned about presenting everything all at once.

Build suspense through presentation. As students pass through the content in Knewton Math Readiness, they reach specified mastery thresholds and unlock new material to work on. This design is consistent with the principles of gamification:

  • Keep players hooked by providing quick, satisfying wins.
  • At the same time, don’t give away all your cards at once.
  • Build in an incentive for long-term commitment by teasing players with a sense of what’s to come.

As gaming expert Professor Kurt Squire suggests, it may be productive to “unveil” certain parts of the game only after players hit specified triggers. Not only does this design strategy focus the player’s attention, it also heightens suspense and investment in the game since players are more excited to enter a new world if it’s built up as a reward.

Though you may be limiting the scope of information presented to users at any given point (to focus them on the task at hand), consider adding a view which provides a sitemap and a “you are here”-type indicator, so that users never feel lost. In the Knewton Math Readiness course, for instance, students can switch between different perspectives such as “dashboard,” “current lesson,” “work space,” and “all lessons”—a view which displays all the “cards” a student has collected (each card reflects a different mastered topic).

If you’re interested, here’s some more reading on tablet-inspired design:

1. How Tablets Are Transforming Website Design

2. How the Ipad (And Tablets) are Driving New Web Design Trends

3. Two Platforms, One Design: Tablet Inspired User Interfaces