I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the use of badges as a way for learners to gain recognition for their achievements, because they’ve come up on a couple of projects I’m working on. While, in principle, I’m very much in favour of an open, flexible assessment system such as badges, I do have some reservations to their use.
An academic colleague surprised me last week by saying “badges are a terrible idea, they’re for children, my students would think they were back in primary school.” Now this is a colleague who I had seen the evening before taking part in a ‘who can make the best napkin hat’ competition, so I know she’s certainly not averse to games and playfulness. She’s got a point: badges – like game-based learning – won’t appeal to everyone and may demotivate many students, but that’s not a reason to disregard them wholesale, more a call to thoughtfully consider how to use them to best effect.
For a gamification project I’m working on, drawing on research on games and motivation (as well as a fair amount of game playing), I’ve created some principles of badge system design for learning. These are really a first attempt, and I’d really appreciate any comments, feedback, suggestions, and additions.
- Simplicity. Don’t try to encapsulate too much information in a single badge. A 2×2 (type and level) matrix is sufficiently complex. Each badge can then have a clear, uncluttered visual identity.
- Variety. Provide a large number of badge types, so that different learners on the same course can develop completely different badge sets but can still identify as part of a group. This allows for exploration and identification of possibilities.
- Exponential progression. As learners move through levels, badges should become increasingly difficult to achieve. Early badges should be gained quickly to give learners a feeling of mastery, later ones should take longer and be more complex.
- Fairness and clarity. Is is crucial that badges are perceived to be fair, so that the criteria for achieving one is clear and transparent (not necessarily before it is achieved).
- Surprise. The unexpected can be a massive motivator, so create badges that are not known in advance (but are still fair and clear why they were awarded in retrospect).
- Achievability. Each subsequent badge should build on previous ones to be seen as achievable, yet still challenging.
- Collections. Humans like to arrange things into sets and complete collections, so grouping badge sets into collections can add another motivational layer (but with associated complexity).
- Humour. Not all badges have to be serious (my colleague might disagree with me on this one).
As with any game-based element, I believe that badges can be used to motivate some of the people some of the time, if used thoughtfully and purposefully. My concern is that when they’re used ‘because we have the technology’ that they may end up actually pissing students off rather than motivating them. I’m going to finish with a quote from Werbach (2012) who reminds us: “don’t mindlessly attach extrinsic motivators to activities that can be motivated using intrinsic regulators.”
Werbach, K. (2012). For the win: how game thinking can revolutionise your business. Philidelphia, PA: Wharton Digital Press.