Gamification: Making sure the game is ‘learning’

In my last post I asked some questions about gamification using digital badges. The gist of my concern was that digital badges may become victims of their own success. Specifically, the game might end up being more about badge collecting than learning. Secondly, if badges are the driver for engagement in learning activities then students may revert back to old habits when the badges lose their novelty.

We need to be developing the 21st century skill of innovation in our students, making independent learners of them. The danger with digital badges is that students may instead become, or remain, reward  and guidance dependent learners.

So is this an argument against digital badges? Absolutely not. It is important to reward learning and digital badges are excellent rewards. The pleasure of the reward, however, must be transferred back onto the learning that took place. Students need to learn to take pleasure in learning if they are to become independent learners. I believe this can be achieved if the badges are designed well.

It is important for the badge criteria to be written to reward specific learning outcomes, that need to be demonstrated consistently. Students should know exactly what the requirements for the badge are and be able to consistently meet those requirements. In other words an element of consolidation needs to be factored into the badge. In this way students are being rewarded for learning rather than completion.

I believe it is also important to use progressions of badges, so that students are encouraged to build on prior learning. This emphasises the notion that learning is a process and also consolidates the prior learning.

Many badge systems use groups of badges to work towards a higher badge. For instance science, technology, engineering and maths badges combined earn a STEM badge. While this might be suitable for holiday programs I believe it encourages the ‘collector’ mentality and I think that the progression model is more powerful for learning.

As an example of a badge progression here are a series of badges for developing skills in collaborative problem solving:


Basic badge


When solving a non-trivial problem in a collaborative context the recipient

  • Recognizes the role of others in solving problem
  • Shares resources
  • Communicates strategies to achieve a common understanding of the problem

Bronze badge


When solving a non-trivial problem in a collaborative context the recipient

  • Shows perseverance and commitment to solving the problem together with peers
  • Approaches the problem systematically, setting goals and evaluating different strategies
  • Can make connections between different pieces of information
  • Is aware of the performance of their peers, and can see their own performance objectively

Silver badge


When solving a non-trivial problem in a collaborative context the recipient

  • Acts with planning and purpose, drawing on prior knowledge and experience
  • Can adapt and change with new information
  • Initiates interactions and responds to contributions from peers but may not resolve differences or change plans

Gold badge


When solving a non-trivial problem in a collaborative context the recipient

  • Assumes group responsibility for the task
  • Works through the problem efficiently using only relevant resources
  • Tailors communication and incorporates input from peers, changing plans and resolving conflict as necessary
  • Can reorganize the problem in an attempt to find a new solution path


Badges like these are a powerful way of developing independent learning skills in students because:

  • Each badge builds on the previous one, so that students consolidate existing skills as they move on to the next badge.
  • They can also see what the next badge is awarded for and work towards it, advancing their learning while still giving the students ownership.
  • The badges are focussed on their collaborative behaviour in the group over time, they can’t simply ‘do collaboration’ and move on.
  • The badges are hierarchical, but there is no pass/fail line. Students can enter the sequence at any point and move on to maturity in collaborative problem solving. They don’t reach a point where they can consider themselves ‘satisfactory’ in this skill.

By constructing our digital badges in this way I believe that the focus is always on continuous learning. We are therefore developing independant learning habits in our students. We are making sure that the game is learning.


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