Designing Puzzle-Based Learning

Posted on September 27, 2012


There are three main components to puzzle-based learning (or just puzzles in general):

  1. A Goal: You are trying to solve some problem and it will be clear if and when you solve it.
  2. Feedback Loops: You will get feedback on your progress, helping you determine whether your hypotheses are getting you closer to your goal or not.
  3. The Option Set: You will have certain tools / techniques / resources at your disposal to achieve your goal.

As I explore building more and more puzzle-based learning games I’m finding that exploring each of these factors is enormously beneficial to creating challenges that are neither too easy nor too hard.


Goals in puzzles can be clear (get the ball in the bucket) or vague (make the U.S. tax code easier to understand). Mostly I’ve been using clear goals so far. The perception about whether or not the goal is achievable is so important to the educational process that I don’t want to stray too far from very clear goals. The real world also offers unlimited vague goals so it may be that students will naturally progress to more vague goals as they seek to create the life they want.

Feedback Loops

Feedback loops come in many forms. They can be immediate (the second you make a change you see if that change achieved your goal) or delayed (you have to wait a day, a month, a year in order to tell if your hypothesis was correct), and they can either be consistent (you get the same result every time you test a hypothesis) or inconsistent (you might get the same result 70% or the time). Feedback loops can also be simple (it’s obvious whether you are getting closer to your goal or not) or complex (the feedback loop could be interpreted as a positive or negative result).

Each of these factors can be played around with when creating a puzzle. Simply delaying the feedback loop a little bit can have a profound effect on how someone approaches solving a challenge. When introducing a new concept making the feedback loops as simple and immediate and consistent as possible will have an enormous impact on how intuitive and engaging the experience is for a student.

Teaching some material, such as management, or really anything that involves people, generally suffers from feedback loops that are inconsistent. One management style will produce different results when applied to different people. Such a feedback loop can make it almost impossible to effectively teach management through a puzzle. The puzzle environment simply can’t be trusted to represent real-life.

The Option Set

Every puzzle has an option set. With a jigsaw puzzle you have a finite number of pieces to try as you figure out the puzzle. With Sudoku you have the numbers 1 – 9 at your disposal.

The option set makes it possible to solve a given challenge through brute force, which means that a student should never get stuck, with no idea what to do next. They can always just try another option. It also encourages exploration, making it more likely that a student will try and discover novel solutions they would not have come up with otherwise. Both of these factors make the option set an important component of great puzzle-based learning.

The option set can be very finite, making the puzzle much easier to solve, or essentially infinite, providing greater challenge. In the puzzle-game Angry Birds, the option set appears small (a few birds at your disposal), but is in reality essentially infinite as you can throw each bird with a varying amount of force and angle. This strategy is particularly intriguing as it provides the player with the perception that they can solve any challenge because the option set appears to be very limited, while in reality the option set is actually quite large, making the challenges quite hard to solve.

The perception that a student can solve a given challenge is probably the most important component to a puzzle. If the student does not think they can solve the challenge then they will likely give up. If they perceive they can solve the challenge, though, even if they actually can not, then they will stick at it for an enormous amount of time.