Pretty Sure Badges Aren’t the Answer to Our Motivation Problem

With the convening of the DML 2012 conference, the conversation on my feeds has once again turned to badges. As I’ve outlined in this space before, I am somewhat of a badge skeptic. At first it was a general uneasiness, then I started thinking about motivational theory and what it might predict about the use of badges as they’ve been operationalized in various ways by the Khan Academy, among others. As I started thinking through motivational issues, I kept bumping up to the fact that both research and theory suggested that on the whole, there is a very real risk to intrinsic motivation when badges are used in learning.

Mitchel Resnick blogged about this issue again this week, in anticipation of his DML 2012 panel entitled “Are Badges the Answer?” Resnick outlines the same issues that I discussed in my earlier posts:

The problem, for me, lies in the role of badges as motivators. In many cases, educators are proposing badge systems in order to motivate students. It’s easy to understand why educators are doing this: most students get excited and engaged by badges. But towards what end? And for how long?

I worry that students will focus on accumulating badges rather than making connections with the ideas and material associated with the badges – the same way that students too often focus on grades in a class rather than the material in the class, or the points in an educational game rather than the ideas in the game. Simply engaging students is not enough. They need to be engaged for the right reasons.


As I dug into motivational research and theory, I think that this a very real issue. Consider this post about using Khan Academy in a Grade 5 classroom in the Los Altos School District, and these observations are coming from the students themselves:

A few months ago, Khan Academy added badges to motivate younger students to learn. However, the students now have ignored the exercises and videos, only to focus on badges. There are six types of badges, the Meteorite Badge, the Moon Badge, the Earth Badge, the Sun Badge, the Black Hole Badges, and the challenge patches. The Meteorite Badges are common and pretty easy to get. The Moon badges are slightly harder to get, but still are pretty easy. Earth Badges are much harder to get. The Sun Badges are increasingly hard to get, and the Black Hole Badges are pretty much impossible to get. In our class, most of the people already have Meteorite, Moon, and Earth Badges, but only 6 have Sun Badges. Many students corrupt their learning in attempt to gain a badge. [italics added for emphasis]


Out of the mouths of babes, indeed. So what’s the answer? Do we abandon badges altogether? I am not sure that’s warranted either. I think we just need to tread carefully, especially as folks get their badge systems up and running. I am great admirer of the Stackexchange communities, which often distribute badges based on community involvement rather than on discrete, lower-level skill sets (like watching X amount of videos or getting X number of questions correct in a row). I believe that if badges are used, they should be operationalized in a way that incentivizes social learning and community involvement. Community-designed badges are one way of doing this. The structure that the badges surround seem as important to me as the badges themselves: if we are using badges in a thoughtful way in conjunction with good pedagogy, then I could see it working. Still, the attendant risks make me queasy. For those of you designing badge systems now, God speed. Consider the risks as you go. What concerns me more is the rising use of Khan Academy in K12 schools as a replacement for (or as a supplement to) face-to-face instruction. It really might be doing more harm than good.




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3 thoughts on “Pretty Sure Badges Aren’t the Answer to Our Motivation Problem

  1. Hi Andrea I’ve sort of “lurked” your blog, and enjoyed your exploration of motivation and badges :)

    My 10 year old son loves Kahn Academy. Yeah, he loves the badges – they really do help motivate him. This can make all the difference sometimes, for example, his motivation ebbs and flows some and it can be a real wind behind his sails.

    But. He picks the lessons he wants to do and is encouraged (in our home, documentaries, Kahn Academy and such are “free” – no earned privilege from doing daily jobs is needed to enjoy) so he has worked thru many, many lessons. I can detect his engagement because he often enthusiastically tells us what he’s learned or it comes out when he explains things.

    I think you nailed the key toward the end of your post: it’s no replacement for face-to-face instruction. Technology augmentation. Because ultimately individuals are different. What works for one person will be a little, or a lot, different for another. And so a mentor, coach, teacher is needed. Because some children will go overboard for badges and will need to be assisted. But many won’t. There is a spectrum, and humans need to step in and discern the difference and guide the techniques. By our own engagement with our learner’s engagement we can fearlessly embrace tools such as Kahn and exploit them. Just my two cents.

    Michael Atkinson

  2. One more thing. I think another reason why badges can be helpful is one of transference – they can transfer motivation to become intrinsic.

    For example, our children are rewarded (not necessarily by badges but by other similar rewards) for playing piano or gymnastics. thank goodness: they develop skills and because of their pride and simply feeling good at excelling, motivation seems to gradually transfers from external to intrinsic (plus it becomes a habit!)

    Again, the key I see is still personal guidance!

    • Andrea Zellner

      Michael, thanks so much for commenting. I agree that the personal guidance is so crucial in these types of online spaces. My biggest concern is that we are taking kids who are already intrinsically motivated and intervening with a badge which, depending on the kid, may or may not decrease motivation and increase other negative outcomes like cheating. I guess for me I really want proof that we are gaining more than we are risking. I think badges are fun and exciting, but I am not convinced that they are the “magic bullet” answer to our problems with assessment and motivation. I think that the badge systems we design need to be aware of these types of motivational pitfalls and include mechanisms that take them into account. I am by no means saying Khan academy is a bad place for kids to spend their time, merely that we need to thoughtfully consider (as you mention) the ways we implement and utilize the resource.

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