Gamification of Learning: Am I using the timer correctly?

Close-up Of Female Doctor Checking Blood Pressure Of Male Patient

How do you feel about completing a task under time pressure?

If there’s one single topic I get asked most about gamifying e-learning is this one: the timer.

The story usually goes like this:


Based on an extensive “5 things you can do to engage learners” Google research, leadership decides that from now on, every e-learning course must be gamified, as your smile sheet results are low (although, you know there’s no correlation between the Level 1 smile sheet results and course effectiveness). Your task is to make the e-learning course more engaging.

Three things naturally pop in your head: points, leaderboard and timer. Points are good, because you can incentives actions, not just choosing the correct answer but opening a PDF, watching a video clip, etc. Leaderboard brings competitiveness… To make it more exciting (“as seen on TV”), you also add time restriction. Everyone loves competition, right? Let’s say, you throw in some quiz questions. Each question has a digital timer, counting down. The max score is 60 points but with every second you lose one. After a minute, you’re out. You snooze, you lose.


You have your prototype to playtest (because you know that quick, early and frequent prototyping is crucial). And that’s when you get completely confused. Some of the playtesters think this is the most fun since sliced bread was invented, others turn red in frustration. What happened?

It’s not just you. The following study shows an example, where participants were taking a quiz (including points, timer and leaderboard). Later, they were asked what they liked and did not like about the experience.

The worst parts of the activity were generally about the time pressure and the questions.



Time, has captured the imagination of many artists and scientists. There is an objective side of it: the actual time passed. But think about the one minute you have to wait for a green light in traffic when you’re late from a meeting. Or the 5 minute wait on hold, listening to lively music, while you’re ready to unleash your angry at customer service. It seems eternity. How about a time pressure on coming up with a creative solution? It hurts…

When you apply time restrictions in learning, you’re creating a cognitive pressure on the learner. And it’s not just about the amount of time they need to complete a task within, it’s the sheer fact that they are timed. Some love it! Competitiveness is exciting for them. On the other hand, some people completely shut down under time pressure, even if they know the answer. So, the question is should you or should not use timer in an e-learning course?


The answer is simple: it depends. Here are 5 suggestions to think about when implementing a timer in the course:

  1. Are your learners under time pressure at work when applying the knowledge or skill they learn in the course?If they are not, adding additional cognitive load and emotional pressure might not be a good idea.
    If yes, and it is essential for them to make quick decisions at work, than timer might be a good idea.
  2. If you decide to use a timer, think about realistic work scenarios: does it really matter, whether they make a decision within one second or 30 seconds or 1 minute? Or, time pressure is more like about “not dragging out” a decision making but it doesn’t matter within that time frame when exactly?If the former, you may want to include a sliding scale timer, which means learners get more points making a decision faster.
    If the latter, you may want to include a count down timer, where learners must make a decision within a certain timeframe but it doesn’t matter how fast.
  3. In real life, does making quick decisions allow more time for other decisions? In other words, can you accumulate time? Or, every decision has its own fixed timeframe?If you want to encourage learners to make decisions faster to be able to spend more time an another question, use the accumulating timer approach: add the remaining time to the next question (with a maximum they can accumulate in total). This approach may not even affect points, just strategy.
  4. Should you use timer to penalize?Ultimately, you want to provide a feeling of mastery for the learner. Using positive feedback loops, you reassure their knowledge or skill. A timer that penalizes the learner may affect their experience negatively. So, unless it is more important in real life to make quick decisions than getting it right, it’s more advisable to use a timer as an added bonus, rather than a punitive method. Let’s say, selecting the correct answer is worth 100 points. The timer maybe serving as the added bonus, where each remaining seconds is worth x points to be added to the total (or you may give x points if the learner selects the correct answer within a timeframe and 0 bonus if they run out of time).

    If this method creates a too complex scoring mechanism, separate the bonus from the point system. You may “pass” a question by selecting the correct answer, but you can get an additional bonus: one star, two stars or three stars for each, based on timing. Competitive players would want to get three stars, others may not care about the stars as much, and they wouldn’t feel like they are penalized by removing points.

  5. What should be the timeframe?Based on the four suggestions above, just make it realistic. Be clear about how the timer works. And playtest. Adjust. And repeat. Ultimately, you want to achieve the Flow, where the task is not too easy (tons of time, so it does not make a difference) and not too hard (frustrating).


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