What Wordle teaches us about the power of success

Offering more mastery experiences will greatly reduce the mental and emotional fatigue that permeates so many post-Covid university classrooms

Thomas R. Guskey's avatar
University of Kentucky
9 Mar 2022
bookmark plus
  • Top of page
  • Main text
  • More on this topic
Arrow leading up steps illustrating article about Wordle, mastery experiences, the power of success

You may also like

Ready, player one? How video games can help engage students
The word ‘play’ and a downward arrow in neon

Like many others, I’ve been amazed by the phenomenal rise in popularity of the game Wordle. If you spend any time at all on social media, you’ve undoubtedly seen countless posts from friends featuring the Wordle yellow, green, and grey boxes. Wordle’s astonishing growth made me wonder why such a simple game should attract so much attention so quickly.

The secret of Wordle’s popularity appears to be the same as what explains the popularity of all game apps and video games: they allow players to experience success and progress on a challenging task. The nature of the task seems irrelevant.

Consider the earliest video games. Pac-Man is an excellent example. The Japanese arcade game manufacturer Namco Limited introduced Pac-Man in 1980, and it became an overnight sensation. People of all ages throughout the world began playing the game, all vying to improve their scores. The goal of the game was simple: gobble up the dots in a maze while avoiding capture by ghosts. To this day, it remains one of the highest-grossing and bestselling games ever developed, generating more than $15 billion (£11 billion) in revenue.

The appeal of success

What explains Pac-Man’s popularity is certainly not the task. No one finds gobbling up dots inherently interesting. It also has nothing to do with cultural relevance or innate appeal. Pac-Man proved equally popular among men and women, young and old, in countries across the entire world. Nor does it have anything to do with attaining a tangible reward. Those who succeed in gobbling up all the dots in Pac-Man are given the chance to gobble up more dots in a more complex maze with faster ghosts. That’s like saying to students: “If you solve these 10 mathematics problems correctly, I’ll give you 10 more problems to do, and this time they’ll be more difficult!” That’s some reward!

Wordle and Pac-Man are popular because players experience success and progress on a challenging task. Every time you play, you have the chance to improve your score. In Wordle, the challenge increases as the words get more complex and letter combinations become more complicated. Most importantly, in both Wordle and Pac-Man, outdoing others on the task isn’t as important as seeing your own progress and improvement, and the pride you feel in getting better or solving the puzzle.

Mastery experiences

Psychologist Albert Bandura refers to these as “mastery experiences”. Experiencing success and seeing improvement give us a sense of pride, confidence and optimism for success on future tasks. More generally, they enhance our mental well-being and give us a “can do” spirit.

The past two years of the Covid pandemic have strained the mental well-being of instructors and students alike. Responses to Covid imposed restrictions on every aspect of the instructional process. They forced instructors to modify the way they teach, and compelled students to change the way they learn. These imposed changes took away a shared sense of control and influence in learning environments, and made us feel vulnerable and helpless. In many cases, they also diminished our success.

To remedy that, we need to find ways for both instructors and students to gain more “mastery experiences”. We need to bring the Wordle focus of success and progress on a challenging task into every learning situation. Instructors who find ways to do so are likely to see remarkable improvements in their students’ mental health as well as their own.

In my introductory-level statistics classes, for example, I want students to understand how adding or deleting a single observation can change the average score of any group. Working in teams, the students first calculate the average of a group of scores, then recalculate the average after taking out the highest score, and again after taking out the lowest score. Next, I ask them to repeat the process, but this time adding a single high score and then adding a single low score. Finally, they must use what they learned to explain in their own words the statement: “Mr. Wethington left the ranks of educators to become a politician, raising the average intelligence of both groups.”

Yes, it’s a bit of fun. But more importantly, all students experience success in learning a crucial statistical concept that they will never forget.

Granted, not everything important for students to learn can be seen as a “game”. But everything can be seen as an opportunity for a successful mastery experience. And those successes don’t have to be big. Wordle offers just one word each day. Similarly, as instructors we must do our best to ensure that every student has at least one successful learning experience in every class. In my class, for example, all students leave knowing how a single extreme score can affect the average. With this relatively modest learning success, they feel a little more pride, a little more confident, and a little more optimistic about their success in coming classes.

Instructors need success, too!

As instructors, we need successful mastery experiences as well. We need to use evidence-based instructional practices that quality research shows lead to student success. We need to regularly gather evidence from students through brief formative assessments to gauge their learning progress, identify and correct any learning errors and then verify that our actions made a difference. Instructors who see that difference in their students begin to feel better about themselves, more confident of their effectiveness as teachers, a greater sense of pride in their work, and have more positive mental health generally.

Success and progress on a challenging task offer the keys to motivation. The designers of Wordle and Pac-Man recognised that, and we must do the same. We must help students gain successful learning experiences each day, even if modest. We need to make sure students leave our classes each day ready to answer the question: “What did you learn today?”

We also must help instructors recognise their vital role in providing students with those experiences. Doing so will greatly reduce the mental and emotional fatigue that permeates so many classrooms today, and help restore the joy that comes to students and instructors alike from the experience of learning success.

Thomas R. Guskey is professor emeritus in the College of Education at the University of Kentucky. An earlier version of this article, “What educators can learn from Wordle’s success”, was posted in the Education Week blog Finding Common Ground on 8 February 2022.

If you found this interesting and want advice and insight from academics and university staff delivered directly to your inbox each week, sign up for the THE Campus newsletter.


You may also like

sticky sign up

Register for free

and unlock a host of features on the THE site