Imagine you are at a dimly-lit dinner party with four friends and an eccentric host. A flash of lighting briefly brightens the room, then all the lights go out. In the darkness, you hear a scuffle and a shout. When the lights return, the host is on the floor, not moving. All the guests remain seated in their chairs. Someone outside the room begins knocking frantically at the door…

There is a certain genre that engages the mind like no other: the murder mystery. One of the reasons for its success throughout history is that, instead of providing an entertainment experience, this genre forces you to actively employ your own cunning as you consume the media.

Who killed the eccentric host? How did they do it? These questions echo in your mind as every line of dialogue is pondered, every prop piece is examined, every backstory is investigated. Anything and everything could be a clue.

As training professionals, it can be helpful to create this level of mystery and immersion in our courses. The same principles that are applied in the murder mystery genre can easily be used in instructional design to make learning irresistibly engaging. After all, if a murder mystery can make reading a book feel like playing a game, think how easy it is to make interactive instruction do the same. Invite the learners to put on their detective caps, pull out their magnifying glasses and actively participate in the material.

Realization Versus Revelation

Solutions, when they are given, should come as realizations rather than revelations. Even if the learners are unable to figure out the solution, once it is given, it should make them say, “Of course!” They should be able to trace the story back and recognize a path that they could have followed. They should believe that if only they had thought about the problem a little more, they could have solved it for themselves. A revelation, on the other hand, is nearly always boring. It may even make the learners feel cheated out of the experience of discovery. This principle is summed up nicely in the book “Michael Allen’s Guide to E-Learning” as the difference between experience and presentation. Already, by putting the learner in the role of detective, you are offering him or her an experience rather than simply presenting material. But you should also provide the solution within the feedback of the e-learning scenario rather than presenting it as basic information. Intrinsic feedback allows for continued immersion and a vastly more memorable experience.

Posing the Question

Mysteries, in many ways, can often be boiled down to a multiple-choice question: “Who dunnit? (Choose one of the four options).” But this isn’t the only way to bring a sense of mystery to your learners. You can also accomplish mysterious e-learning by forcing learners to perceive patterns or identify inconsistencies in the learning environment. For example, the environment might use a “hot spot” treatment where the learner finds security risks in an office. Rather than multiple-choice or true/false questions that ask whether something might be a security risk, this course places learners in the room and allows them to discover the security risks for themselves.

Pique the Learner’s Curiosity

In this article, I have embedded another example of mystery. This article is clearly not a multiple-choice question, but it does ask the question, “Who dunnit?” And like any good mystery, it has a solution that can be solved by the reader. By looking for patterns, clues or inconsistencies throughout the text of this piece, it is possible to find a solution to that question. Does knowing it’s a mystery change the way you read this article? Is your curiosity piqued? Do you become more active and invested as a reader?

Allow For Mistakes

Clues are the first thing people look for in a mystery. When adding clues to e-learning, err on the side of assuming that your learners are intelligent and insightful. This might mean making distractors believable enough for learners to actually accept them as real clues. While the goal isn’t to overtly trick the learners, it is usually a good thing for them to go down the wrong path, because doing so provides an opportunity to instruct them using critical content embedded within the feedback. Clues should not be obvious as the readers encounter them; that’s a procedural story, not a mystery.

Provide Support

Help learners where appropriate. Hints at a scenario’s solution should be used sparingly and only with the purpose of conveying unobtrusive critical content. A coach or informational pop-up may not always be necessary, but it is important to remember that not all learners will be at the same level of understanding. If the mystery is too difficult to solve, and the course doesn’t provide any help, it can de-motivate the learner.

Ground Learners in Their Environment

Another successful example of wonderfully mysterious e-learning is Corning’s supervisor effectiveness substance abuse module. In this module, the learners are managers (read: detective) who know one of their employees is drinking on the job. It is up to the learners to read reports about each employee’s previous three days to determine who is the most likely culprit. Even with the module’s simple media treatments, the mystery pulls the learners in. They quickly become emotionally motivated to discover the answer, and the context creates real incentive not to make the mistake of accusing the wrong employee.

Emotion is another key component of any engaging mystery. When the learners are the detective, they feel an immediate drive to discover the solution. Beyond this drive, the scenario’s context and aesthetic are essential to creating emotionally compelling content. These tasks, of course, are not only the responsibility of the designer. Writers, media artists and even developers are crucial in creating a context and aesthetic that add to the sense of intrigue. While mysteries can themselves provide meaningful, memorable and motivational experiences, the work of everyone on the instructional design team is crucial to creating an immersive experience that engages the emotional senses of the learner.

Let us know if you solved the mystery of who dunnit! Share this article on social media and tag @TrainingIndustr and @customelearning.