Applying “The Hero’s Journey” to Course Design

by Jacob Guerra-Martinez

As I have mentioned in some of my previous posts, Gamification is the utilization of gaming concepts and theories into courses. Ideas such as advancing levels, increasing challenges, implementing rewards and providing instant feedback can be worked into an online course for a more robust learning experience. So if you are thinking of your course as a game, where do you start? It all begins with the hero’s journey.

Before I begin, I must reiterate another point: just because you are using gaming concepts does not mean your course has to be turned into an actual game. While you can definitely implement stories that involve zombies, wizards and vampires, they are not necessary for gamification of a course. Instead, what you are doing is taking the idea of your students as a hero and planning out what their quest will be.

So what is the hero’s journey, or as it is also known as, the monomyth? The “Hero’s Journey” is a pattern of narrative that was developed by scholar Joseph Campbell. This pattern includes all the trials that a hero endures in a story, and describes the hero as someone who goes on an adventure and achieves great things on behalf of a group. While Campbell originally had 17 stages, Christopher Volger later adapted Campbell’s work to fit the following 12:

  1. The Ordinary World
  2. The Call to Adventure
  3. Refusal of the Call
  4. Meeting with the Mentor
  5. Crossing the Threshold
  6. Tests, Allies and Enemies
  7. Approach (Sometimes approach the inmost cave)
  8. The Ordeal
  9. The Reward
  10. The Road Back
  11. The Resurrection
  12. Return with the Elixir

I won’t get into what each one originally means here, however if you want the definitions and an example, go to this handy page.

While I was attending the 2017 Online Learning Consortium Innovate Conference, I had the pleasure of attending a presentation by Cathy Russell, Angela Gunder and Jessica Knott, who discussed “Leveraging Narrative in Online Course Design” by seeing your students as an epic hero. Taking the work of Campbell and the adaptation by Volger,  Russell, Gunder and Knott present the student as someone who is set to go on a grand adventure in search of something unknown. In the case of learning, this can be applied to a new skill or objective that the students must learn in order to be successful. Here is each step of the hero’s journey in relation to students:

  1. Hero in the Ordinary World: Student moves from the known to the unknown. This involves taking prior knowledge to help students get ready for what is to come.
  2. The Call to Adventure: Instructor provides the student with a task or challenge. In other other words, how will the instructor introduce the lesson?
  3. Reluctance to Accept the Call: Student poses questions related to the challenge. For this section, you have to think about how students will be able to ask about any concerns for the course and/or material and how they will obtain clarification.
  4. Encouraged by a Mentor: Instructor provides guidance, resources, context and encouragement. This is where faculty will provide resources for students to succeed and complete all activities.
  5. Commitment to Leave for the Journey: Student commits to complete the assigned challenge. In this stage, faculty need to think about how the students will show commitment to completion of the assignment. Are they going to turn in a proposal, or perhaps some sort of outline for feedback?
  6. Exploration, Trials and Allies/Enemies: Student researches, collaborates and collects knowledge. This section deals with the guidance that students will receive from their instructor in order to complete their work. For example, what requirements have you set forth in regards to research?
  7. Approach: Student prepares to answer the questions. What types of requirements have you set forward in order to complete their tasks? For instance, does the assignment have a list of criteria or steps that ensure success in the description?
  8. Ordeal: Student takes part in a series of academically  rigorous tasks. These involve the tasks that are to be accomplished in order to complete the assignment.
  9. Reward: Student receives new knowledge. This part has faculty think about the types of feedback students receive in order to know they have successfully completed a task or assignment.
  10. The Road Back: Student prepares to present new knowledge. In this instance, how will you ask students to present what they have learned.
  11. The Resurrection: Student becomes aware of the importance and implications of new knowledge. In other words, how will they be asked to share their work “within and beyond the scope of the class”?
  12. The Return: Student shares knowledge as a means of improving the experience of others. In this case, how will the students share what they have just acquired with other students?

So what does this all mean? By following the steps of the hero’s journey, you are therefore creating a powerful narrative that allows you to truly challenge your students. It also assists in designing activities that are engaging to students while also providing them with a clear path to completion and success. If you would like to know more, Russell, Gunder and Knott have created a wonderful site that provides many resources, including a worksheet that can help you formulate your narrative.

If you would like to know more about gamification or want to brainstorm some ideas, contact Learning Designer Jacob Guerra-Martinez.