Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Design Principles for Motivating Learning with Digital Badges

This post is cross-posted at HASTAC
Katerina Schenke, Cathy Tran, & Daniel Hickey

This post introduces the emerging design principles for motivating learning with digital badges. This is the third of four posts that will introduce the Design Principles Documentation Project’s emerging design principles around recognizing, assessing, motivating and studying learning.

Motivation is described as the initiation or sustainment of engagement of a particular task. Badges are thought to motivate students to complete tasks, learner more deeply, and make good decisions about what to learn next. Badges may also motivate communities to work together towards shared learning outcomes.

While a systematic study of the motivational impacts of badging has yet to be conducted, we can make educated guesses as to what the effects of badges might be. Using our background in the field of motivation, we documented the badging practices of the DML awardees that appear likely to impact student motivation. This means that any practice we believed could affect students’ initiating or persisting in a task was documented as a motivational practice. It is important to note that we consider not only the motivation related to learning outcomes associated with badges but also to learners’ buy-in of the badge system.

Badge Design Principles for Motivating Learning
After we identified the practices in each of the projects, we clustered them into more general principles. Below are the principles we’ve derived. Because the practices were mostly inferred rather than explicitly articulated by the projects, we have not attempted to determine which practices were most prevalent. As such, these principles are ordered for coherence rather than prevalence.

Providing privileges: The privileges provided to learners for their badge collection are important to dissect because different types of privileges and their contingencies affect motivation. For example, learners can get a prize for acquiring a badge, be provided new activities, be awarded a role as a peer mentor, and even be given access to internships. Making note of what kinds of privileges are granted as a result of receiving badges can orient learners to the next task that they choose. For example, if the privilege granted for earning a badge is not associated with something the learner values, he or she is unlikely to engage or persist in the activity associated with earning that badge.

Recognizing identities: Some projects use badges to recognize learners’ identities in some way. For example, badges can recognize a learner’s role within the badging system such as recognizing their specialization in journalism, engineering, or peer mentoring. Badges can also recognize learner’s identities by being incorporated into badge projects that themselves target specific groups.

Engaging with communities: Some learners are able to earn badges for their involvement in their communities both at the physical and digital level. Badges that are awarded for involvement in the local physical community typically award learners for interacting with members in their community. Projects also recognize learners’ involvement in digital communities by granting badges to learners who interact with people online. Engagement in the community can be seen to promote students’ motivation to continue on activities because learners are relating to others.

Display badges to the public: Thanks to Mozilla’s Open Badges Infrastructure, badge earners in most projects can decide if and when to publicly display badges they are currently working on or have earned. Some projects give earners the option of displaying badges themselves, while other projects automatically display badges for learners. We know from the motivation literature that providing choice makes learners feel more autonomous (in control), and that different levels of choice have implications for motivation. However, displaying badges to the public may induce competition among badge earners, which may or may not be adaptive. Competition is likely to more adaptive when earners feel a sense of autonomy.

Outside value of badges: Some projects integrate practices to give badges value outside of the badge system.  These include having badges count as academic or course credit, showing badges to outside agencies, and/or documenting the link between the badges and real life applications of knowledge. If badges are perceived as being useful outside of the system, learners might be more inclined to take up the badge system and continue with it.

Setting goals: Badges allow for learners to set goals and visualize the previous goals that they’ve accomplished. Badge systems can use goal setting in many different ways. For example, user-created badges where learners have to plan what kind of badge they earn and how they earn it is one way to encourage goal setting. Other projects display the progressive goal trajectory through which learners follow, and some even allow the users to determine that trajectory.

Collaboration: Though several projects allow for collaborative efforts, some make a concerted effort to encourage this through awarding group badges for group accomplishments as well as personal badges for having a role in a group collaboration. By awarding badges at the group level, learner motivation to collaborate and complete tasks is thought to allow learners to relate more to others and perceive the task in a different way than without the element of collaboration.

Competition: Scarcity of badges and use of a point system are two ways that we have seen projects contribute to competition among badge earners. We know from the motivation literature that some types of learners strive in competitive environments and others do not.

Evolving requirements for badges: Few projects execute this practice of changing the requirements to get a particular badge. Requiring learners to complete different tasks for the same badge could pique their interest continuing to use the badge system.

Recognizing different outcomes: This principle gets at a central goal of our project. The type of learning that a badge recognizes and the way that recognition is managed has profound implications for motivation. The principles for recognizing learning across projects are summarized in this previous post. The recognition practices fall into two broad categories that are defined by the prior research literature. Some badges are awarded for meeting some criterion (performance-based), while other badges are awarded for engaging in some activity (“effort-based”). The prior research suggests that these two types of badges are likely to have very different consequences for motivation. Additionally, these distinctions are likely to interact with other project features in complicated ways. For example, public display of badges described above is likely to have different consequences for performance-based than for effort-based badges. Additionally, many projects include badges that are intended to recognize more social and participatory forms of learning. Motivation researchers are just beginning to explore this type of learning. It seems likely that recognition of social learning will operate very differently in effort-based versus performance-based contexts. We are working hard to sort out these complicated relationships across different badge functions. An important initial insight is that the type and nature of recognition is often determined by the broader context of the project, meaning that badge designers may not have any say over the learning that their badges need to recognize.

Utilizing different types of assessments: Like the previous principle, this principle highlights how other project factors will impact motivation. A previous post detailing the assessment principles across projects is located here. While some assessment decisions are constrained by recognition decisions, most projects have a lot of latitude in how they assess learning. This is good because the type of assessment has significant consequences for motivation. For example, having an expert versus a computer conducting the assessment communicates different expectations to the learner. Knowing that your peers are assessing you is very different than knowing a computer is assessing you. While the majority of the projects use peer assessment, a handful also use expert judgment and self-assessment. Many projects combine different types of assessments.

Feedback and Next Steps

We would love to hear back from project team members and other interested parties regarding these principles. As we state, these practices were most inferred based on our knowledge of the motivation research literature. People whose theories of motivation are different than ours are certain to come up with different practices and principles. We have tried to use language and ideas that resonate with the people who are designing and using badge systems. We welcome any and all suggestions.

It is beyond the scope of our project to study the motivational consequences of badging practices in specific projects. We hope that these principles will help initiate and organize efforts from projects, and then help us share those research designs and finding across projects and with the broader public. The next post will introduce design principles for studying learning with digital badges. This will introduce the distinction between research of badges, research for badges, and research with badges. Each seems to have distinct potential for studying motivation.


  1. I am wondering where choice and voice over learning pathways adds to the motivation for learners. I think this is potentially one of the most powerful factors that can be built into a badge learning experience. Having agency over once's learning is incredibly empowering.

  2. Sarah--
    Thanks. yes, choice and voice is indeed vitally important. Decades of research on self-determination theory provide powerful evidence showing just that. But this research did not anticipate some of the powerful motivational affordances associated with digital badges. In particular some assume that badges are merely extrinsic rewards that ultimately constrain individual choice and voice. But many of the applications of badges actually give learners new authority and autonomy. A well-designed badge system should make it simple for learners who have found a "disciplinary voice" (what cognitive psychologists would simply call "expertise") to broadly communicate that potential via their badge.

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  4. This set of principles gets us back into the whole issue of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. I was quoted in an article in article in Campus Technology ( saying that we needed to "move beyond the outmoded distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation."

    My friend and Michigan motivation guru Stewart Karabenick wrote and asked me to explain why I think that the intrinsic/extrinsic dichotomy is outmoded. Let me get started with it here. That distinction is rooted in a much deeper enduring debate over the way individuals learn, which is rooted in an even older debate over the nature of knowledge. But the most important learning in and around digital badges is primarily social in nature. Badges help communities negotiate what counts as learning and then recognize that learning. Whether or not a badge is valued (and therefore motivates learning) is established communally. If we start our discussion of motivation and badges staking out a position on the extrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation (as many have), we will never get to these more social forms of motivation that I believe will give badges their real potential to transform education and learning

  5. Great topic, thanks, I'm at WGBH and we're exploring the use of self-awarded, publicly displayable badges for "green" behaviors, i.e. "effort-based" badges to use the distinction noted here. We'd be doing this probably through Facebook with badges for families who indicate that they had completed tasks we'd be promoting or providing: for example completing a Trash Clean-Up activity would let them post a related badge. It's part of a much wider project, so these badges would not have to do the heavy-lifting in terms of motivation (I'm avoiding the intrinsic/extrinsic demarcation, per the post above) but I am interested in your collective thoughts as to what kind of approach might work best, such as adding any kind of scarcity or introducing hoops to jump through to get a badge. In other words, for this to be motivating, how hard should it be to get a badge - balanced against the wish for people to try these activities... Thank you!