November 30, 2015

Difficulty Curves & Scaffolding



Games employ subtle, often entertaining systems to teach players the necessary skills and to challenge them to master those skills.  Zelda games, for example, start off with back story narrative, in which the player learns how to ride their horse, finds their sword and slingshot, and learns how to move, fight, and manage their health.  These tutorials scaffold new skills to aid player development. In the first session, we will use these game tutorials as a model to reflect on the mechanics of university courses. Participants will discuss how to structure their courses to aid their students in acquiring general skills to be a good student and the skills particular to the course curriculum.

Difficulty curves are a measure of how quickly the difficulty of a task increases. If a task is trivially easy, students will find it boring.  Repeated trivial tasks will be demotivational.  If a task is too hard, students will find it frustrating and again demotivating.  Game designers apply this theory through an optimized difficulty curve seeking to gradually increase the range of difficulty while allowing for some fluctuation in difficulty of particular tasks.  We find this same concept in the psychological theory of flow. If someone is properly challenged, they can enter a flow state in which their concentration and feeling of intrinsic motivation increase. In our workshop we will discuss how single assignments and entire courses can be designed with difficulty curves to increase student motivation and potentially trigger flow states as students learn.


Curate for GOBLIN
Evaluate GOBLIN
Write Blog Post
Challenge Activity


  1. How did you learn to play GOBLIN?
  2. Specifically, what experiences taught you the basics of GOBLIN?
  3. What is scaffolding?
  4. Where was scaffolding present in GOBLIN?
  5. Where is scaffolding present in your courses?
  6. How can scaffolding be used in your courses to increase student success?
  7. What are difficulty curves?
  8. Where were difficulty curves present in GOBLIN?
  9. Where are difficulty curves present in your courses?
  10. How can difficulty curves be used in your courses to increase student success?
  11. How can scaffolding & difficulty curves be used in your assignments to increase student success?
  12. Produce a visualization to represent how scaffolding & difficultly curves can be present in a course.

Suggested Games

These are games that we believe use difficulty curves and scaffolding effectively: