Badges vs. curiosity: What should motivate students?

Ed Tech

Ed Tech | Monday, November 17, 2014

Badges vs. curiosity: What should motivate students?

Digital badges can be seen as a great motivator or a way to cheapen education. Where are you on the extrinsic/intrinsic motivation spectrum?

As a member of the Austin, Texas, class of the Google Teacher Academy, I’ve been fortunate to be exposed to some great professional learning already.

The academy starts in just over two weeks, but I already have learned so much and feel like I know many of the people in my class. We have a Google Plus community for updating each other about the academy or about whatever questions or interests we have. Plus, there’s a very busy Voxer group (learn about Voxing for professional learning here) and a constantly running Google Hangouts chat.

It’s my job to bring the best of my GTA experience to you here, so here’s something that generated plenty of conversation in our Voxer group. I hope it will generate some conversation here in the Ditch That Textbook community.

The topic of badges was brought up. Badges are digital proof of completing some achievement that you can display to others. The digital version of these badges can be displayed on a class website, through a separate website platform like Badgr, or anywhere students will go to view them.

For some students, badges can be great motivators. Badges show the world (and their classmates) what they’ve accomplished. They’re a concrete, finite goal to strive for with a clear reward at the end. (I think “concrete” is a fair word to describe something made of pixels!)

For other students, it can cheapen the learning process. Using them can come off as “I’ll give you a cookie if you …” motivation. Some would argue that students should strive to learn what’s worth learning without having extra rewards for it. A fine education and satisfying their own curiosity should be motivating in itself.

The bigger-picture idea that this discussion sheds light on is motivation. Extrinsic motivation, in this case, needs something on the outside to motivate (like badges). Intrinsic motivation just needs the internal drive and desire of the student.

Every teacher seems to fall somewhere on the extrinsic/intrinsic motivation spectrum. (Be thinking about where you are for the comments later!)

For me, personally, I’m not above using any means necessary to help my students learn. In one class last week, we created and sang a song to help us remember the currencies of Spanish-speaking countries. In the video I created to show students the lyrics, I ended it with a picture of me wearing a dolphin hat with a blue and white pom pom dangling down as hair. (See? Nothing is below me!)

I will tell crazy stories in Spanish to get kids to internalize new Spanish grammar. I will help them come up with wild mnemonic devices to help them remember vocabulary terms. And, yes, I would use a series of badges if that would motivate some of my students.

The truth of the matter is that some of my students just aren’t very intrinsically motivated. Some of them are and will work doggedly until they graduate high school to learn in my class, but that just doesn’t work for others. Blame it on an education system that touts compliance more than personal discovery or whatever you’d like. Those particular students need some direction, and they need some motivation beyond “you should want to learn this.” (That’s why I have stickers and candy and competitive review games in my class!)

Badges and stickers and other forms of extrinsic motivation sometimes can lead to intrinsic motivation. If a series of badges is set up well, students will need to learn certain skills or information to be able to complete certain benchmarks for a badge. Learning the requisites for the badge can spark a desire to know more, and the motivation for learning shifts.

You can’t be excited about something you don’t know exists. Extrinsic motivation can get you there.

Although I’ve written heavily about the power of extrinsic motivation here, I really think I fall in the middle of the motivation spectrum. I think a healthy mix of both is crucial to meet every student where he or she is. My goal is to provide plenty of “Ooh, I want that!” reactions and “Hmm, that’s interesting” reactions.

I don’t see any teaching technique as below me, and that includes introducing “shiny things” as rewards to get kids to learn sometimes.

OK, it’s your turn! Where are you on the motivation spectrum? Do you lean more toward intrinsic or extrinsic motivation? Leave your thoughts in a comment below!

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  • Emily says:

    Two thoughts: first know your Ss will this motivate them? Each class can be very different. Second you the teacher need to buy in. If I try something I think is lame and won’t work it usually fails.

  • Rhonda K Braddy says:

    I believe I’m a little bit of both intrinsic and extrinsic because I enjoy the little trinkets and badges for a reward and I often get stimulated from gaining new knowledge. Word I know, but either way accomplishing goals I’ve set no matter how small I get motivated. Thank you for this article.

  • Kelly says:

    I think in education we are really good at external motivators most of them time. Behavioral science has shown us over and over agin the power and necessity of this type of motivation. The conversation should start focusing on how and when to fade this motivation to support our students with intrinsic motivation. Like everything else in learning it needs to match the student and needs to be a thoughtful process. Loved this post

  • Katherine Albright says:

    I know as a middle school teacher that extrinsic motivation is really huge! They will do anything for a sticker! Most of my “best” students are still motivated by parents, money or making honor roll. I do agree, in a perfect classroom, it should be a mixture of both kinds of motivation.

  • Cate Tolnai says:

    Being a fellow Google Teacher Academy – Austin cohort member and contributor to the Voxer conversation mentioned in Matt’s post, I wanted to throw my thoughts into this thread. First off, Matt, you did a great job of summarizing what we tossed around for a few days in Voxer. For each person that was pro-badges/gamification/game-based learning, there was an equal match of people who struggled to see the “real world, sustainable value” of such an “overtly extrinsic motivator.”

    I am someone who has completely bought into badges as a consumer. I love quests/challenges when it comes to my learning, and I have really enjoyed earning certains badges for PD I’ve attended. However, I didn’t go to the PD or complete the tasks simply to earn the badge. Rather, I celebrated the learning I did by taking the badge and posting it (1) for others to see the learning I participated in, (2) to remind myself of the learning I participated in, and (3) to show others the type of learning THEY can participate in. Because I enjoyed this process, I have been challenging myself to integrate badges/gamification principles into my PD program at my district. I have seen the spark in teachers as they commit to the quests I pose to them and then proudly claim the badges I create. Without a doubt, the process is addicting to many of our personalities for lots of different reasons. And like many of you stated, I’ll do ANYTHING to inspire a teacher to learn a new skill or tool that they can then bring back to their classrooms.

    Because of this Voxer conversation and the clear debate among educators that I completely respect, I purchased a copy of Karl Kapp’s book, The Gamification of Learning and Instruction, to become more engrossed in the pedagogy behind gamification. It’s a phenomenal read. After only reading 1 chapter, I feel more informed on the topic and clearer on what I am trying to accomplish with the approach. A fantastic addition is that I was told to find Karl on Twitter and reassured that he’s accessible and willing to chat – this is true! I tweeted him at @kkapp to tell him I bought his book and how excited I was to read it, and within 10 minutes he had responded with an offer to help in any way. What a guy!

    So… this debate will (and should) continue because it is complex at it’s core. As educators we want to see the growth of intrinsic motivation but exist in a world of extrinsic motivators (remember, grades and test scores ARE extrinsic). My goals for PD are to engage my teachers in fun, social, and applicable growth opportunities that are highly personal. Gamification (when planned right) is the magic ingredient that I’ve been looking for.

    I can’t believe I haven’t met you yet, Matt, because already I feel so inspired by your work, your perspective, and your commitment to conversation and discussion. Thanks for a phenomenal post and thanks to everyone who has commented.

  • Mark says:

    For me there has to be a reason for learning something. If you think about it as teachers why do we spend time researching new tools and reading blogs? The reason is we want to be better teachers… We have purpose in increasing our knowledge as we use it for something. Rewards can work to an extent but you will see serious results if you give your students a reason to learn besides earning a badge. The question should be, what is my subject used for in the real world and connect it to that. Then you will see motivation.

    • I definitely agree with you Mark that a real world connection can be extremely motivating to students. My most successful students are the ones who say “I’m going to live in Germany” or “I want to host an exchange student” and such.

      • Alex Enkerli says:

        In a way, this discussion can get us to think of “learning projects” and even “learning contracts”. Those work quite well with adult learners and they probably can be adapted to fit with the needs of younger ones.

  • I enjoyed reading your post today. I lean more towards the extrinsic than intrinsic side. To share a funny story with you, I made of cover of “Royals” by Lorde about learning German to motivate my students. Comparing this year with last, I feel like 2 things have made my classes better. 1. Having a class point system. As a class, they can earn or lose points by their behavior. After a certain number of points they can cash them in for rewards. Most classes choose to save up to have a “free day”. 2. Classroom jobs for students. So I do give them behavior grade individually, if they complete their “job”. These are both extrinsic things, but have found that students will go above and beyond the requirements I set in hopes of earning bonuses. This is great for first and second year, but third year and AP I do not use these strategies as much.

  • Alex Enkerli says:

    I work as a Learning Technology Advisor for Vitrine technologie-éducation, which deals with Quebec’s college system. Recently, we’ve set up open labs about badging in formal and informal education.
    Though there clearly is a whole lot more to badges, the potential connections with both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation have been mentioned several times during our first lab sessions with badge practitioners and researchers. This post demonstrates the importance of clarifying these things.
    In fact, what I like about this post is that it puts things in a specific perspective, more personal and based on prior experiences with other things. Once one gets into badges, it’s easy to internalize the complexity and forget the importance of the broader context.

    Personally, I’m at the most intrinsic extreme part of the motivation spectrum. In fact, most things which count as “extrinsic motivation” tend to discourage me. Chances are that it makes me less likely to assume that my students need extrinsic motivation.
    But I do understand the contextual power of some external incentives. Haven’t read anything convincing which made them more valuable than internal drive (especially since much of the literature on the topic suffers from confirmation bias). Which doesn’t mean that I don’t give any value to extrinsic motivation.
    In fact, I’ve tried to motivate some people using “tricks” which would fail miserably with me. For instance, I’ve added a competitive element to some people’s endeavours even though competition is almost invariably incompatible with my own willpower.

    Where I do have a problem with extrinsic motivation is in terms of agency. A learner who asks for an external push may get it from me. Too often, though, the extrinsic motivation is applied “from above”, with little to no attention to people’s own factors.

    Maybe my case is weird (or my perspective is too skewed) but I haven’t met a learner who doesn’t have her/his own intrinsic motivation. I did, however, meet plenty of people whose motivation may be clashing with external value. I’ve also observed plenty of cases where external factors such as grades have displaced or at least muted intrinsic motivation. This, to me, is part of the problem with current systems of assessment.

    And, as counterintuitive as it might be, badges can serve as an alternative.

    Badges need not be added as incentives. It might be an obvious case for them, but it’s clearly not the reason I’m interested in them.
    Badges are representations of achievements. They can be used to recognize diverse forms of learning. They take meaning in a much broader ecosystem, which involves issuers, earners, and other users (including potential employers). Traditional credentials may not be that effective at those things, especially not in most implementations. Badge programmes may also fail at providing much value beyond the “carrot and stick” model. But badging is flexible enough that it can accommodate a lot more. Besides, the very exploration of the potential for badges can do a lot to expand our horizons.

    Preliminary data we’re getting from lab guests about badges and motivation tend to be quite mixed. There are some cases (especially with young male learners) where they do provide a strong motivation, in a way similar to gaming scores. The effect can even be stronger than grades, which is saying a lot given the frequent obsession with grades. But there are plenty of cases (the majority, in one ongoing project) where badges are perceived as having no impact on motivation.

    Which clearly doesn’t mean they’re useless.

    There’s a lot to be said about badges for intrinsically motivated learning. The criteria and evidence parts of Open Badges shift the dynamic quite a bit when learners are able to use the badges they’ve earned. As pointed out during a lab session, the seminal experience at P2PU’s School of Webcraft was about recognize prior learning by practicing Web designers. These people already had incentives to learn, since their work required it. What was missing, though, was a way to assess the value of their learning. In a world in which educational institutions focus on credentials, that case provides a lot more depth than one might expect at first blush.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post which provided a new voice to the overall discussion.

  • Interesting point. I think I stand in the middle. Especially in Spanish, I experience that a lot of students lack motivation. At time beeing I’m using quizlet and kahoot instead of vocabulary tests to get the students to learn new words. After 4 kahoots, we claim a winner; the student with the highest avarage score. Works With most students, and at least they study more With this gamification than for the old vocabulary tests. Badges is something to think about. Might be a motivation to some students. A badge for each grammatical point learned: regular verbs in present tense, the conjugation of nouns… This could be easy With the basics, but harder With more complex task, like: a badge when you have written an understandable text of at least 150 words???

  • I started off rather opposed to extrinsic rewards, at least in the form of gold stars, stickers, lotto tickets, candy, and stuff like that. I did start off using grades. Then I tried going gradeless. I literally taught for a few years with no extrinsic motivators of any kind. I didn’t get the results I expected. Kids weren’t all motivated to learn Science. Some were and others were just relieved to not have to stress in at least one class. I learned that hard way that many kids just aren’t intrinsically motivated to learn Science even if allow them to explore and learn in different ways and to show me what they learned in different ways with no punishments for learning.

    That’s when I tried adding extrinsic motivators through gamification. I added experience points for completing assignments successfully and giving badges for completing sets of assignments. I’m still experimenting but am liking gamification-style extrinsic motivators instead of grades, stickers, candy, etc. I also prefer gamification-style extrinsic motivators instead of having no extrinsic motivators. More kids get into the work and do it when they earn experience points and badges. It doesn’t motivate all kids, some kids still don’t do much work and some do the work regardless of the points or badges, but overall I’m seeing more engagement and enjoyment.

    Kids have told me that they really want to be acknowledged for doing the right thing and I think experience points and badges can, and do, do that.

  • Laura Bain says:

    Great Blog Matt.

    Overall I would have to say that I lean toward the extrinsic side of motivation – like you, I would do anything to help my students learn. You do have those occasions where the children are so completely motivated or engrossed in the task it is unnecessary – and that can be quite often really. It certainly has a lot to do with the nature and background of the students themselves – my kids, coming from a somewhat privileged background, almost come to school with this expectation.

    At the moment, I use ClassDojo and award points for different achievements – which the children find very motivating and the parents can also monitor. I have also used badges on Edmodo with similar success.

  • Suzanne says:

    I’m the librarian at a K-5 Title I school, 95% FRL. Many of my kids have little intrinsic motivation, another thing they didn’t get from home. For them, a badge would be that wonderful, concrete proof of their accomplishment.
    My worry is that, in our current, assessment-crazed system, badges may become just one more “test.” Like food, clothing and shelter that we already provide, we’re trying to get that love of learning in their minds and hearts before they leave us. So if they don’t get a badge, it’s another failure.
    So yeah, I guess I’m in the middle of your continuum. I do think this will be helpful for me –
    Maybe I found it here? 🙂 If so,thanks!!

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