Duolingo Made My Kid Cry


Like all parents, I think my kids are brilliant. So I was excited when my elder daughter and her friends got into Duolingo, and surprised when it all went wrong. 

I shouldn’t have been surprised, though. Duolingo has some great ideas for motivating language learners, but it only takes one false step to drive them away.

Duolingo is a free language learning app that broke out at my daughter’s school near the end of the year. I’m not sure who picked it up first, but it spread through a classic viral mechanic: word of mouth coupled with a competitive leaderboard. Each kid scored experience points by playing through the app’s modules; the kids who played a lot of modules got ahead and the rest were motivated to catch up.

The experience point system in Duolingo is friendly to all players. It’s easy to catch up, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re doing a basic or advanced module. The players learn at their own pace and compete based on their effort. I saw a lot of progress happen in a short time as a result, and even my wife got into the “game” of learning languages.

The Duolingo Nightmare

Fast forward to a few days ago. My wife mentioned she hadn’t played Duolingo in a while, and asked our daughter if she had. Elder daughter burst into tears.

In fairness, she’s a tween. She bursts into tears when you ask her to pick up a sock. But she doesn’t usually react like that to a game she’s lost interest in.

It took a while to get the full story, but it turns out that Duolingo has mastery meters for its little modules. You increase the meter by repeating modules, which encourages practice. The mastery meters decrease if you don’t practice, a typical rot mechanic.

Practice makes perfect?

My daughter enjoyed maxing out the meters. And at first, she didn’t mind pushing the decaying meters back to max. “But after a time it gets really irritating,” she said. She started letting the meters fall in the early modules, then wanted them back at max and had to do them over and over again.

She got bored, she got frustrated, and she stopped playing. She felt like she was failing because she didn’t want to do what Duolingo wanted her to do.

It’s easy to see the pedagogical reasons for encouraging repetition. In this case, however, that pressure backfired. Kids like my daughter enjoy spreading their wings and gaining experience by doing a lot of modules, but that sets them up to feel they have to stay on top of all the modules they’ve completed no matter what.

Due to loss aversion, the hurt of reversing progress is outweighs the pleasure of gaining the progress in the first place. That’s a net loss for the player, and an understandable reason to walk away from the game.

Fixing the Rot

My daughter is a data set of one, of course. Without additional data, it’s hard to tell whether Duolingo is motivating or de-motivating its users.

Rot mechanics are always dangerous territory, though. They trigger loss aversion, and in the short term that motivates the player to engage. But if countering rot becomes a chore and not a habit, you lose the player. And if you lose the player, You Have Failed.

However, there are at least three ways Duolingo could have handled rot this mechanic more carefully:

  • Rot could be slowed down if the player is losing interest, measured by reduced logins or session length.
  • One practice session should completely refill the meter instead of requiring the player to practice five times in a session to refill it.
  • As number of modules mastered grows, fewer modules should rot at any given time.

I’m sure I’m missing at least one good way that Duolingo could improve retention in this situation. If you think of it, add it to the comments below!

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