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.



More on Motivation: CEP 910

I blogged earlier today about my Current Issues in Motivation and Learning course. So far this semester we are on Week 9, and each week has been a new set of motivational theories. As a newbie psychologist, this has been a bit overwhelming. I felt confused about the ways the theories built on each other and the sometimes subtle differences between them (Dear Psychologists: self-concept, self-esteem, and self-efficacy. This is maddening.). At any rate, I made a giant map of all the things we’ve read so far and I’ll be updating it as we finish up. I’ve embedded it below. Also (for my classmates), if you have your own account, I’ve made this able to be copied so that you can take it and make it your own.


I like to think of myself as a writer.  Or, at the very least, a person who, when called upon to write, can produce something coherent and interesting.

Additionally, I like to think of myself as an efficient machine: I do not let procrastination win.  No–I work all hours of the day and night, squeezing in email sessions while my kids play in the sandbox in order to permanently hover around inbox 0. I scribble on napkins; I compose in the shower.

Yet here I find myself, emails piling up, words unwritten,  blank screens and an evil cursor blinking, blinking, blinking….

Sometimes, writing is painful.

In my last post, I welcomed everyone to my learning, and today I seem to be inviting everyone to my hideous writer’s block.

In other news, the semester started and I am currently enrolled in “Technology, Society and Culture,” taught by the brilliant Yong Zhao.  He is the author of one of my favorite books on education reform, Catching Up or Leading the Way, and I feel very privileged to be taught by him in his last semester here at Michigan State.  For our first assignment, we’ve been asked to read the following and write about them:

  • Paul R. Ehrlich (2002). Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect. New York: Penguin Group.
  • Jared Diamond (1999). Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York: Norton.
  • Larry Cuban (2001). Oversold and Underused: Computers in Classrooms, 1980-2000. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Clayton Christensen, Curtis W. Johnson, Michael B. Horn (2008). Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. New York: McGraw Hill.

I am not quite through all of the texts, but as I complete them, I plan to blog about them here.  The final essay/s will also appear in this space as part of my open education journey.