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The Zeigarnik Effect and Online Learning

zeigarnik effect online learningYou might not have heard of the Zeigarnik Effect, but you can bet you’ve experienced it. Did you ever get interrupted in the middle of a task?

It’s frustrating, isn’t it? Your mind is fully absorbed in whatever you’re doing, you’re more focussed than a quality controller at the lens-making factory, you’re in the zone… and then somebody comes along with another urgent task that just needs to be done now.

But you’re a helpful soul, so you stop whatever you’re doing and go to help your colleague. Meanwhile, a dull anxiety is bubbling up inside you – all you can think of is that unfinished task.

No matter how much you try, you can’t devote your full attention to your colleague’s quandary.

You’ve just been hit with the Zeigarnik Effect!

What is the Zeigarnik Effect?

The Zeigarnik effect states that people remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks.

clockSoviet psychologist, Bluma Zeigarnik, hit on the idea after noticing that a waiter could clearly remember the details of unpaid orders. However, after everyone had paid, he couldn’t remember any more details.

Her report was published in 1927, but since then, numerous other studies have demonstrated that:

  • Subjects will voluntarily return to complete a task after having been interrupted (McGraw et al., 1982)
  • Subjects become frustrated when they are interrupted leading them to overestimate how long the task took to complete. (Greist-Bousquet & Schiffman 1992)

The crux of the Zeigarnik effect is the basic human desire for closure. If you’re a fan of TV soaps and crime dramas, you’ll probably know how frustrating it is to see ‘to be continued…’ just before the credits roll.

However, the chances are that because this gratification has been delayed, the show will play on your mind for the rest of the week. That’s annoying for you, but it’s gold-dust for the TV networks!

The Zeigarnik Effect and Online Learning

So, how can you use this effect in online learning to slyly hack your learners’ minds and change their behaviour?


surveyA Task List

The first thing you need is a list of tasks that the learners need to complete. Ideally, these should be bite-sized chunks that can be realistically achieved in a short space of time.

This task list should be easy to find so that the learner can refer to it whenever they need to.


progressA completion indicator

To get the most out of the Zeigarnik Effect, you need to remind the learners of their incomplete tasks at every opportunity. Depending on how you deliver your learning content, this could be something that’s already built into your UI and it could consist of little more than a percentage indicator or a progress bar.


CompetenciesA Rewards area

By gamifying your learning management system, you’re denying closure on a whole new level! On our Academy LMS, badges are awarded for completing tasks. When the learner navigates to the badge cabinet, they can see all of the badges they have earned. However, they can also see greyed-out versions of the badges they have yet to earn.


As demonstrated by the Zeigarnik Effect, human nature drives us to focus on uncompleted tasks rather than completed ones. By combining these elements, you’re giving the learner a sense of what they need to do to complete their learning programme.

Getting the most from your learners isn’t always about giving them the most elaborate eLearning or the most precise message – sometimes the best thing you can do is to try to change behaviour.

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