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An assortment of puzzle pieces

Learning Motivated by Cheese and Wicked Problems

Mon Dec 28, 2020 at 07:30 AM

In their book Burnout, twin sisters highly accomplished in their fields of music and health tell a story about a scientific study comparing how two groups complete a maze puzzle with pencil and paper (Friedman & Förster, 2005). In both versions, a picture of a mouse is at the entrance of the maze, but in one version a piece of cheese waits at the end while in the other an owl is lurking. Those with the cheese maze completed the maze faster and at higher rates. The lesson: 

“We thrive when we have a positive goal to move toward, not just a negative state we’re trying to move away from” (Nagoski & Nagoski, 2020, p. xix).

This reminded me another example testing persistence in a maze-like challenge: when people were challenged to complete a game coding challenge that got a car out of a maze, one of two things happened when they did not successfully code the puzzle. One group was simply prompted to try again, while another lost 5 points (everyone in both groups had 200 points). Which conditions cultivated more success? In the group that lost (totally meaningless) points, 52% completed the maze. In the no-penalty group, 68%. The former NASA engineer who conducted this experiment deemed this the Super Mario Effect, saying:

“The key is finding the right way to frame the learning process” (Rober, 2018).

While these challenges are not exactly the same, they have a consistent message important for any educator: penalties do not motivate the kind of creative and analytical learning we hope for from students. This does not mean we don’t let students make mistakes, but that we create environments where it is safe to make mistakes (better yet, where students can make lots of mistakes) and where the end goal is clear, interesting, and important.

How we teach and design learning environments to motivate learning rather than stifle persistence may be somewhat different depending on our teaching context, but one goal can guide all of our decisions: center the cheese, and eliminate the owl. Here are some potential ways to get started:

Define the “cheese.”

What “positive goal” are we having our students “move toward”? The examples explained here are not grand goals, as they both involve solving puzzles. The point is that the goal is in sight. Sometimes making an interesting, small challenge is enough. Alternatively, you can explain what the cheese could be (e.g. a foundational concept to all of x). Students might also be able to define the cheese: why does this matter to them? Describing short-term and long-term positive goals can increase persistence. “Wicked problems” might work well to connect your course or individual learning tasks to a larger “real-world” issue.

Eliminate “owls.”

We cannot eliminate every stress and threat in students lives, but we can identify the “owls” that may loom in our courses and eliminate or reduce them. One universal place to start might be grades, or the extent to which they are used. Proponents of “ungrading” argue that ranking and numerical scores interfere with the actual learning task. Instead, they promote minimizing and delaying these numerical grades as much as possible in exchange for mastery learning approaches, feedback, revision, and unlimited attempts. 

Normalize mistake-making.

When penalties based on points and grades are eliminated, we can begin to normalize mistake-making. When students see they have made a mistake--even in zero-threat situations such as asking students to write down an answer to your question or answering an anonymous multiple-choice poll in class--they get immediate feedback that there is something to learn.  When we create situations in which mistakes are not only okay and frequent but a normal part of the learning process, we are encouraging risk-taking and creativity. This is why frequent testing and recalling might be better for learning than simply reading about a concept: when students receive feedback that their answer is wrong and are prompted to try again, they see that learning is happening. 

Use stories and metaphors.

Later in Rober’s Super Mario Effect TEDTalk, he demonstrates that there is nothing inherently interesting about pressing buttons on a gamepad, but it is the story that is connected to the buttons (run, jump, hit, duck, throw, etc.). Some educators have taken a message like this to promote gamification, but I would start with a broader approach of storytelling. This might be opening a lecture with a story related to the activity or concept. It could be using case studies to prompt students to apply course concepts to a problem. It could even be asking students to explain the course concept through a metaphor with the two-sentence fill-in-the-blank prompt: “[Course concept or process] is like [metaphor/illustration]. [Explanation of the connection],” or to consider how they would explain the concept to different audiences, such as a second-grade classroom or another layperson group related to your content.

As students hustle to keep the requirements straight among four different syllabi and make sure they’re keeping up with work, family, degree requirements and bills, lets use our inherent imaginations and curiosities to keep all of us motivated and energized.

Save and adapt a Google Doc version of this teaching tip.


Blum, S. D. editor (2020). Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning. West Virginia Press. One contributor, Jesse Stommel, speaks about ungrading on the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast.

Friedman, R. S., & Förster, J. (2005). Effects of Motivational Cues on Perceptual Asymmetry: Implications for Creativity and Analytical Problem Solving. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88(2), 263–275.

Nagoski, E., & Nagoski, A. (2020). Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle. Ballatine Books.

Hanstedt, P. (2018). Creating Wicked Students: Designing Courses for a Complex World. Stylus. He also speaks wicked problems in the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast.

Rober, M. (2018). The Super Mario Effect: Tricking Your Brain into Learning More | TEDxPenn.

Written by Christina Moore, Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Oakland University. Others may share and adapt under Creative Commons License CC BY-NC.

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