Badges as gold stars: The Behavioral View of Motivation and Learning

scout merit badges

Image by Flickr user zen and used under Creative Commons License

This is part of a series of posts that will build into my final paper for the Motivation course I am taking this semester. I want to emphasize that this a rough draft and welcome comments, especially ones that point out flaws in my logic or understanding of the motivational theory under consideration. I’m going to try and use my “blogging” voice here rather than my “boring academic voice” that I use in my official paper, but I apologize in advance if I don’t entirely succeed.

In this case, let’s consider that badges here are operationalized as a reward system instead of an assessment system. For the purposes of this exercise, I’m going to rely on existing learning sites with badge systems that I’ve seen in use, namely the Khan Academy, which is largely an automatic reward system based on levels of interaction with the site’s content, such as viewing tutorials or taking quizzes.

Under Skinner’s (1950) model of operant conditioning, the observed behavior of the student viewing a tutorial or taking a quiz is the behavior that we would like to encourage.  We want  the student to persist in that behavior, and therefore learn more from viewing more tutorials and taking more practice quizzes. In this model, the behavior of interacting with the site leads to a consequence, or reinforcer, of earning a badge. This positive reinforcer of the earned badge, in turn, leads to the strengthened or repeated behavior of the student’s continued interaction with the site’s content. Behavioral theorists have also identified that the timing of the reinforcer has a great deal to do with how effective it is at encouraging the desired behavior–an idea known as the reinforcement schedule.   Reinforcers can be on a continuous reinforcement schedule, for example, and be presented every time the desired response is demonstrated.  The Khan Academy largely employs a fixed-ratio reinforcement schedule in which badges are awarded after a set number of responses. This type of reinforcement schedule predicts that there will be a drop in persistence, especially once the set number of responses occurs and no reinforcer appears (i.e. I already earned the badge for watching tutorials five days in a row, so I am very unlikely to watch five days in a row again since I’ve now earned my badge for that behavior). The schedule that results in the most persistence is called a variable-ratio reinforcement schedule in which the reinforcer is presented at intermittent times after the behavior is demonstrated (think slot machines). While Khan Academy  has largely a fixed-ratio reinforcement schedule, they also advertise that some very “rare” badges can be earned in ways that are not clear, thus employing the variable-ratio schedule. By also awarding these rare badges, the intermittent nature of the reward would predict an increase in persistence because it is unclear which action will lead to the jackpot (perhaps overcoming the problem with the fixed-ratio schedule of the other badges? Not really sure on that one.).  While this would predict the more persistence than the other reinforcement schedules, it still predicts that gradually response will drop off.

There is one important assumption that is made in predicting how badges might impact learning behavior–that the reward of the badge is actually a positive reinforcer. For some, a digital badge may mean very little and therefore not function as a reinforcer at all.  In this case, a behavioral view would predict a lower rate of persistence than for individuals for whom the badge was seen a positive reward.

Additionally, if we assume that the awarding of a badge functions as a positive reinforcement, there is an additional prediction to me made about whether or not the potential harm of using a reward system outweighs the potential learning benefits. The use of rewards has been shown to be highly detrimental for intrinsic motivation especially (Deci, Koestner, & Ryan, 1999), and considering that the majority of users in these open course systems are there voluntarily (or are intrinsically motivated to visit the site and engage with the content), is it worth using badges to possible decrease the motivation that brought the learner to the Khan Academy in the first place?  This is the typical argument leveled against behavioral learning techniques: those gold stars may not only be motivating in the short-term, but harmful in the long-term.

But would different outcomes be predicted based on different theories of motivation and learning? More on that soon!


Deci, E. L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R. M. (1999). A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 125, 627-668.

Skinner, B. F. (1950). Are theories of learning necessary? Psychological Review, 57, 193-216.



#openbadges and Motivation

MotivationThis semester I am taking Dr. Cary Roseth’s Current Issues in Motivation and Learning course. I have also been following the Digital Media and Learning Open Badges competition.  As I’ve been reading and thinking about different motivational theories, I can’t help but wonder about the ways that those theories might explain how the Badges for Learning idea might work in practice.  So I’ve decided that I will be putting these ideas to work in my final paper for my motivation course.  My plan is to take the motivational theories we’ve been reading about and use them to make predictions about how badges for learning might impact student motivation and possibly achievement (when appropriate for the theory).  My  paper is due in about a month, but as I develop these predictions, I plan to both blog about them in this space as well as post my final paper here (don’t worry, it’s supposed to only be 10 pages).

I do want to address one issue, however, before I begin. In the initial launch of the Badges for Learning competition and even in subsequent writings, blog comments, and twitter conversations around the web, I’ve noticed that there is a real tension as folks try to imagine how to implement Badges for Learning. It seems to me that the at the core of badges is to develop an alternative assessment structure for not only open courses online, but perhaps even more traditional, face-to-face classrooms. I keep seeing the argument repeated that badges are a way to highlight the self-directed learning that is occurring all over the web. Despite these intentions, the idea of badges as a potential motivator creeps into the conversation. While this may not be the primary intention of badges, I think that the idea of badges a motivator is tangled up in the conceptions of badges.  At first this horrified me: I worried that we were moving reward stickers and gold stars online, and I wasn’t impressed with how well those worked in the face-to-face classrooms. But as I realized how ignorant I am of explanations of what and how people are motivated, I thought it was worth keeping an open mind about.

The first action-research study I ever carried out as a classroom teacher  (back in 2002) looked at motivation and standardized testing. My questions centered on whether or not students’ own personal preferences for different types of assessments might impact their achievement.  My findings were pretty inconclusive, and as I’ve dug into the relationship between motivation and assessment, I’ve found that there has been very little research in this area overall. The impact of standardized tests versus performance evaluations or other non-standardized assessment practices on student motivation is still unknown.  Seeing the stress of my own students before the ACT or hearing stories from my friends about their second graders crying under their desks during testing weeks makes me wonder about it more.  This is all to say that I’m really curious about this issue: what if a student is highly motivated in school and the negative impact of standardized testing is short-circuiting that motivation? I think that most teachers can quickly think of examples of students for whom this is true. They are motivated, they love school, and their achievement on the big test is always low. It just doesn’t reflect what they know and what they can do. For these reasons, I’m all for some sort of alternative assessment structure.

So as I develop my ideas, I welcome comments and criticisms as I go.  The plan is to post a theory and prediction about badges every few days. Wish me luck!

Thoughts on Badges for Learning

This morning I was actively engaged in the backchannel for the Digital Media and Learning competition announcement. This year’s competition focuses on Badges for Learning, which seems inspired in part by Mozilla’s Open Badge initiatives and P2PU.  I fully admit to spending most of my time on the backchannel really trying to understand where the faith in badges as tool for fixing issues with education comes from. Is it based on anecdotal evidence from places like P2PU and Khan Academy? From gaming influences? Specifically, I wondered about the empirical evidence or theoretical basis for this interest: had someone done this well on a small scale? Is this rooted in research on performance assessment or motivation?

There is a lot to unpack in these questions, so for today I think I will focus on trying to best summarize both what the advocates say and what some of the critiques/skepticism around badges are.

Why badges?

  1. In different contexts, badges can be evidence of various competencies. There was a lot of specific discussion of examples of this. The basic process is that I learn something, show that I’ve learned it, and then am awarded a badge. The process of how I was taught and what I did to prove I have the skill/knowledge is entirely open.  This is in contrast to grades in which an A in English may or may not tell you much about my writing ability, for example.
  2. Related to point 1, badge systems would have to also be standardized in some way in order to assist in hiring decisions.  Badges would also assist potential employers because (and I’m paraphrasing) “Google would be your new resume.”
  3. Additionally, NASA discussed that earning various badges could be tied to other competition, i.e. being entered into some fabulous space contest.
  4. Additionally, it was repeatedly stated that what we were doing currently is not working. So why not spend time and money finding something that anecdotal evidence suggests holds a lot of promise? After all, lots of folks play video games, check-in on foursquare, and even learn calculus in order to earn badges.

Why are people worried about badges for learning?

There were a number of very valid concerns mentioned in the discussion. Here are a few:

  1. Open badge systems run the risk of watering down the meaning of badges. It seems that it would be quite difficult to ensure the “pedigree” of a badge, i.e. how to make sure they are not only not counterfeited, but that my PHP badges are from quality issuers and that I  have actually demonstrated the competencies associated with the badges.
  2. There is a lot of concern that this is just our current assessment/grade system dressed up in a novel way. Novelty wears off and assessment is fraught.  Neither do a very good job of encouraging learning.

Next my own concerns about badges for learning:

  • I don’t feel as if I understand the theoretical basis for the research questions around badges for learning. Some of the anecdotes used to demonstrate the value of badges seemed more like performance assessments, while others seemed like typical mutiple-choice tests where a badge is delivered at the end rather than a score. Additionally, examples were given that directly positioned badges as a motivating device, which is hugely problematic (see this).  I do agree that more research needs to be done on the ways that motivation and learning is impacted by the types and/or presence of assessments we give.

I have a lot more thinking and reading to do before I feel like I can have a real opinion. I’ve also dedicated my current semester project for one of my courses (Motivation in Learning, see the twitter hashtag #cep910) to potential theoretical lenses by which we might better understand how badges function in some of the learning environments that already employ them.

Please let me know in the comments if I’ve misunderstood the arguments on either side, other resources you know of, or your own thoughts on this issue.

For more on the topic: