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Gamification, Awards, and Badges for the Adult Learner

Thursday, October 19, 2017   (0 Comments)
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Gamification, Awards, and Badges for the Adult Learner
Anita Samuel, Ph.D., Lecturer, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Setting the scene
One challenge of online learning is getting students to participate in online discussions in a timely and active manner. A common problem is that some students make all their posts on the last day of the discussion. This affects the ability of other students to engage in a meaningful dialogue. When these discussions are graded, students who participate well are also impacted by the non-participation of some students. This situation has engendered discussion guidelines that require an initial post by a certain day and responses by another. Failure to meet these time targets usually results in a penalization of grade points.

I teach non-traditional learners in a fully online Master’s program. All my students are employed full-time and juggle work, family, and school. As a humanist, I shied away from the idea of penalizing these students for being late in their discussion postings. However, I wanted to acknowledge and encourage those who were posting on time. I also wanted to motivate others to post in a more timely fashion. To accomplish this, I decided to try gamification.

What is gamification?
Have you walked the “Yosemite Valley Loop” (35,800 steps according to Fitbit)? Received a free refill for your Starbucks Stars? These are a couple of examples of gamification. Karl Kapp (2012) defines gamification as, “using game-based mechanics, aesthetics and game thinking to engage people, motivate action, promote learning, and solve problems.” Fitbit (and other wellness apps) is a classic example of gamification. There are challenges that build in complexity; there are points and rewards; badges can be earned for completing challenges; friends can work together in teams to complete challenges; and, leaderboards show progress and ranking.

But gamification is not limited to customer acquisition and retention alone. Corporate training has embraced gamification; and, game elements are increasingly embedded in training modules for example, the use of scenarios. Check out:

Gamification, awards, and badges have become “hot” topics in education. Deterding (2011) defines it as using game elements in non-game situations. What this translates to, in practice, is incorporating game elements like points, leaderboards, awards, progress bars, and challenges into learning environments with the intention of boosting learner motivation, participation, and retention.

What did I do?
I started by considering my objective. I wanted students to post early and more frequently. So, I decided to give awards (Early Poster and Master Poster) for students who met my two criteria. These awards were available for every discussion week. The awards accumulated and depending on the number of awards they had received, students were given bonus points. For example,



Bonus Points








I implemented this strategy with 4 courses over a year (summer 2016-spring 2017).

The gamification elements that I incorporated were a basic point system and badges as a visual representation of the achievement.

What did I find?
I conducted a short anonymous, online survey on the award system to see how students were responding to it. I included a couple of Likert scale questions and 1 open ended question on their feelings towards to the awards and if the awards motivated them to post on time. 23% of the students “Really Liked” the awards, 42% “Liked” them, and 35% said they were “Indifferent.” 23% of the students said that the awards “Definitely” motivated them to post on time; 50% were “Somewhat” motivated; 21% were “Not really” motivated by the awards; and 5% were “Not at all” motivated by the awards.

The open-ended question revealed 3 major trends.

(1)   Awards were motivational: The awards were seen as “a simple way to provide a little extra motivation” and that they “reinforce good behaviors.”

(2)   Awards were more stressful: One student commented that, “I want them, but find its added pressure.” Another student expressed that, “Makes me feel that if I do not get awards I am doing less than expected.”

(3)   Awards needed transparency: Some students were not sure of how to track their awards. “I am kind of confused at the awards and if you earn them where to look” and “I don't know where to track my rewards to know if I am earning any.”

My take-aways

                   Awards can work

From this pilot study, it is clear that the awards do have merit. Students do, on average, find it more motivating. Deterding (2012) notes that, “[t]he entity being gamified needs to have some intrinsic value already—a reason for users to engage with it” (p. 17). Associating the awards with discussion postings, which students were already expected to make, ensured this. The awards enhanced existing elements of the course rather than add on another task. Furthermore, students found the awards motivating because they were tied to bonus grade points. This was another aspect of the “intrinsic value” of awards.

Awards need to be transparent

The awards need to be immediately and clearly communicated to students. When students were unclear about where to locate the awards or how to track them, their feelings towards awards were “Indifferent,” and the awards did not motivate them to post on time. The intention behind the award therefore, was lost.

Awards need resources

Creating badges and an award system, tracking it, and making it transparent to students requires a lot of instructor time and creativity. Working with an instructional designer who has some graphic design and gamification background would enrich the process. Unfortunately, this is not always possible.

                External limitations

External forces placed boundaries on what I could or could not do with awards. Existing LMS do not support awards and game elements robustly. This becomes very limiting in what one can do. For the awards system that I implemented, I had to go outside the LMS and create a manual system since the LMS did not offer the functionality that I wanted.

Leaderboards are a strong motivational tool encouraging players to compete against each other. However, keeping FERPA regulations in mind, I had to forego leaderboards. They could be incorporated by using pseudonyms for students or by having students create avatars. These added layers of complexity that I haven’t explored yet.

Moving forward

In my courses, I offer a few extra credit assignments. I realized that these assignments could be tied into the gamification element and I am going to be trying this out. At the same time, I’m working on making the award process more transparent and easy for students to access within the bounds of the LMS.

Last words
I have found that there is some merit to using awards with non-traditional students. The non-traditional student demographic does have students who are intrinsically motivated and they did not “particularly care one way or another.” Some of them even found the awards to be added pressure even though the awards would not affect final grades in any negative way. One student commented that the awards “seems silly – adults should do what they are expected to.” Unfortunately, experience has shown that adults do not always do “what they are expected to.” And awards seem to motivate some of them to meet expectations.

Deterding, S. (2010) Gamification: designing for motivation. Interactions, 19(4), 14-17.
Kapp, K. M. (2012). The gamification of learning and instruction: game-based methods and strategies for training and education. John Wiley & Sons.


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