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Home / Blog Post / Gamification: Re-Thinking Badges


By Lorenzo Brancaleon, Ph.D.
UTSA 2022-2023 Next-Gen Leadership Fellow
Professor, Department of Physics and Astronomy

Badges are a central feature of course gamification. Depending on how they are deployed, badges become part of the mechanics or dynamics of game design and dictate the rules since the game will have to include the features that allow the students to earn their badges.

If badges are intended to represent tiers (e.g., level up) then they can be seen as part of the game mechanics. If they are intended to be rewards, they can be classified more in the dynamics of the game.

The duality of badges leaves the game designer, in this case the instructor, with sufficient freedom to decide what students have to do to earn a badge.

I have included badges in both forms in my courses.

Badge Tiers or Rewards

Tier or Mechanics Gamification

For example, students earn badges through the leaderboard in some courses. In such case students earn game points by participating in course elements that include the completion of challenging tasks in:

  • interactive videos,
  • the creation of concept maps,
  • the running of physics simulations followed by questionnaires
  • and self-reflection essays, the completion of surveys, etc.

As they accumulate game points through these activities, some students reach certain predetermined milestones, such as 50, 100, 150, etc. game points. By doing so they earn a badge for each milestone. In this case, the badges are intended to be tiers (mechanics).

Reward or Dynamic Gamification

However, in another example students would instead earn a badge for each assigned interactive video in which they accumulate a score of 70% or more by completing the tasks in the video. There would be multiple videos that would be equally challenging. Because students can earn badges in different videos, the badges are intended more as rewards (dynamics). 

Using Badges to Motivate

You can see how the condition for the release of badges becomes a key component, if not the cornerstone, of the game design for the course.

In all cases, the rationale behind the use of badges is to offer students a motivating factor to engage with the course and to complete tasks designed to benefit their learning and not necessarily their grade.

But here is where my thinking of badges took a turn. Bear with  — The way badges are “traditionally” deployed they often appeared to me as nothing more than glorified stickers, you know like those given to pre-schoolers when they tuck away things in their cubbie or just an elaborate way to tell people “Good Job!”

Maybe I am wrong, but my expectation and hope is that college students would not be motivated by a relatively trivial “certificate of achievement” such as a badge.

With this believe in the background I started to think of how to make badges into more than tokens so that they would offer additional motivations for college-level students to earn them. Learn more in the video below.

Badge Document

That is when I decided to associate a document with the badge. When students earn it, the badge is not simply an icon in the Learning Management System, but it is linked to a template Academic Innovation helped me create in Adobe Express, which I am now using for all my badge documents.

The hope is to have this document informative for students. The document includes several portions.   

Culturally Responsive Pedagogy.

There is a relatively crude effort at culturally responsive pedagogy. The document attached to the badge includes profiles of scientists and engineers of ethnicity and gender that have been historically underrepresented in STEM and do not appear in traditional textbooks. This is not a tool that will magically bridge the gaps in STEM education or the workforce, but I think it is important to show the students the significant contributions to STEM made by people historically excluded by ethnicity or race (PEER as defined by Dr. Asai of HHMI (D. Asai, Race Matters, Cell, 181 (2020) 757.).

Academic Guidance.

A small section of each badge/document was dedicated to study tips. This was particularly relevant for the semester that we spent in remote instruction and the tip focused on online learning. 

Growth Mindset

I dedicated another section of the badge/document to short anecdotes and considerations taken from my own experience in order to share my own journey through a STEM education and a related career. This section is intended to hopefully become more approachable to students but also to make them see how a journey through a STEM career, like any career is littered with challenges, bad choices, and disappointments, even for someone who becomes a university professor. The point is to make students understand that most of us (myself included) were not born with specific gifts that made us understand physics or any other STEM subject concepts innately, but we had to overcome challenges (at least academically) sometimes similar to what our students experience. Opening up to my students made it possible for some of them to approach me and I was able to mentor them towards the path and the goals that they want to reach for themselves.

Badges And Gamification In My Course

Badges added another dimension to the gamification process in the introductory physics course. Among the assessment tools, I deployed projects consisting of long and appropriately challenging problems in mechanics that students would not normally encounter in homework problems — or even in tests as the solutions could be time-consuming as well as require the use of concepts across different chapters.

These problems require a significant amount of critical thinking and are designed to develop more advanced problem-solving skills. In this case a section of the badge was dedicated to provide hints for advancing in the project. Thus in this case the prospect of receiving a hint to solve the problem was a motivating factor for students to engage with the course and earn game points by completing the gamified activities designed to improve their learning process.