Educational Technology, Motivation, and Streaks

Inside Duolingo, we have a saying: The hardest part about learning a new language is staying motivated. I didn’t appreciate this aspect of effective educational technology before I started working here. The best educational software will not only have great content: It will have mechanisms that help learners stay motivated to keep learning.

Streaks are one of the most important mechanisms that Duolingo uses to keep people motivated. Streaks encourage people to do an activity a little bit every day by counting the number of consecutive days you’ve done something you care about (spent time studying a language, got some exercise, wrote in your journal, etc). Skipped a day? Your streak counter resets.

While tons of apps use streaks, Duolingo adds one twist that, as far as I know, is unique: The streak freeze. As you use the app, you earn the ability to buy streak freezes. Each streak freeze protects your streak for one full day of inactivity. Imagine: You’ve been studying Spanish dutifully every morning before breakfast for a month. But then one day you wake up feeling a little sick, sleep in a bit to recover… and since your routine was disrupted, you forget to practice Spanish that day. Most apps will say that you broke your 30-day streak, and the streak counter will reset the next time you practice. With Duolingo, though, if you had a streak freeze active for your account, your sick day would use up that streak freeze but your streak continues.

Streak freezes dramatically increase the length of the streak you can build. Suppose you’ve got a 99% success rate at remembering to practice on Duolingo each day. Without streak freezes, you could expect your streaks to average around 100 days before they get broken. Impressive, yes! However, if you keep your account equipped with two streak freezes, you have to miss three days in a row to break your streak. With just a little bit of care, you can keep that streak going indefinitely. (If you didn’t take care and let chance dictate your streak length: that same 1% chance of forgetting gave you 100-day streaks in a world with no streak freezes. With streak freezes, left entirely to chance, you could expect your streak to last almost 30 years.)

Longer streak lengths tap into two motivation centers in learner’s brains.

  1. Loss aversion It just hurts so much to lose something you “own.” If you have a long streak you’ll want to keep it. Each day your streak gets longer, your brain realizes it gets harder to replace if it breaks… so you care that much more about keeping it going.
  2. Identity At some point, after practicing a language and caring for a long streak, it stops being something you do and starts being part of who you are. “I’m a person who practices languages at least a little every day.” As Angela Duckworth writes in Grit, once you make an activity part of your sense of identity it makes it much easier to stick with it because your brain stops doing cost-benefit calculations.

I’m not surprised that so many apps try to use streaks as a motivational tool — it’s a simple concept that’s simple to implement in almost any program. Streak freezes, on the other hand, require much more design and programming work.