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Engaging Minds with Mystery

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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 a passive 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 instructional designers and writers, it can be helpful to create this level of mystery and immersion within our courses. The same principles that are applied in the murder mystery genre can easily be utilized in instructional design to make learning irresistibly engaging to the minds of learners. 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 vs Revelation

Solutions, when they are given, should come as realizations to the learner, rather than revelations. Even if the learner is unable to figure out the solution, once it is given it should make the reader say, “Of course!” They should be able to trace the story back and recognize a path that could have been 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 learner feel cheated out of an experience of discovery. This principle is summed up nicely in Michael Allen’s Guide to e-Learning as the difference between Experience vs. Presentation. Already, by putting the learner in the role of detective, you are offering them an experience rather than simply presenting material. But the solution should also be provided intrinsically within the feedback of the eLearning scenario, rather than presented 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. Mysterious eLearning can also be accomplished by forcing learners to perceive patterns or identify inconsistencies in the learning environment. One example where this has been accomplished by Allen Interactions is in 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 placed learners in the room and allowed them to discover the security risks for themselves.



Pique the Learner’s Curiosity

I have embedded, in the blog you are reading right now, another example of this type of mystery. This blog 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 learner. By looking for patterns, clues, or inconsistencies throughout the text of this piece, it is possible to find a solution to that question. Knowing this, does it change the way you read this blog? 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 eLearning, err on the side of learners being 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 learner, it is usually a good thing for the learner to go down the wrong path, because it provides an opportunity to instruct the learner with critical content embedded within the feedback. Clues should not be obvious as the reader encounters 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 popup may not always be necessary, but it is important to remember that not all learners will be at the same level of understanding regarding the material. If the mystery is too difficult to solve, and no help is given, it can de-motivate the learner.

Ground Learners In Their Environment

Another successful example of wonderfully mysterious eLearning created by Allen Interactions comes in the Corning’s Supervisor Effectiveness Substance Abuse module. In this module, you are a manager (read detective) that knows one of your employees is drinking on the job. It is up to you to read reports about each of the 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 learner in. They are quickly, emotionally attached to discovering the answer, and the context creates real incentive not to make the mistake of accusing the wrong employee.


Emotion is another key component to any engaging mystery. When the learner is the detective, they feel an immediate drive to discover the solution. Beyond this, the scenario’s context and aesthetic are essential to creating emotionally compelling content. This, of course, is not only the job of the designer. Writers, media artists, and even developers are crucial in creating the 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 design team is crucial to creating an immersive experience that engages the emotional senses of the learner.

Leave a comment and let us know if you solved the mystery of who dunnit.

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About Author

Nick Tichawa
Nick Tichawa

Nick is an Instructional Designer at Allen Interactions with a background in writing and user experience design. With an ever-strategic vision, he works to craft creative stories and immersive interactions into holistic designs that create meaningful experiences for learners. He enjoys designing micro-worlds where learners can fail and fail again, before ultimately, triumphantly succeeding – learning the material with confidence and in a way they won’t ever forget.

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