What if Badges Replaced Grades?

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

The common understanding is that if students work hard in school they earn "A's." For many however, there is a much straighter route to that "A." Some of the most creative learners are able to figure out what the course expectations are and do the minimum to meet them, and get the grade they want. The Center for American Progress finds that this is a model for the smartest students who may not be challenged by a traditional high school curriculum. But is there a better way to engage and challenge students in our schools? While much of the attention in education reform discussions is devoted to gamification or game-based learning, is it possible that there is one element that might be the lynch pin to major educational change? What if we just scrap the entire concept of grades and replace them with one gaming element – badges?

The Evidence is Conclusive
A July 2012 report from the Center for American Progress, Do Schools Challenge Our Students?  presents some interesting findings about the lack of rigor in our schools:

  • "Many schools are not challenging students and large percentages of students report that their school work is "too easy." If students are going to succeed in the competitive global economy, they need to be exposed to a rigorous curriculum. But many students believe their class work is too easy. Twenty-nine percent of eighth-grade math students nationwide, for instance, report that their math work is often or always not challenging for them.
  • Many students are not engaged in rigorous learning activities. Almost a third of eighth-grade students report reading fewer than five pages a day either in school or for homework. That's below what many experts recommend for students in middle school. Eighth-grade students across the country also report that they rarely write lengthy answers to reading questions on tests" (Boser & Rosenthal, 2012).

The report also finds that the results are similar for high school students stating, "Thirty-nine percent of 12th-grade students, for example, say that they hardly ever or only once or twice a month, write about what they read in class. Nearly one-third said they write long answers on reading tests two times a year or less. Moreover, almost one-third of 12th-grade reading students say they rarely identify main themes of a passage when reading, and almost 20 percent said they never or hardly ever summarize a passage" (Boser & Rosenthal, 2012). While some of these shortcomings can be attributed to attitudes and habits beyond the boundaries of the school, enough are still indicative of some shortcomings in the system.

In addition to this data on education in our public schools, the report also includes an interesting interactive map that allows users to explore data on several topics pertaining to student perceptions of the ease of their schooling.

In addition to whether students feel they are learning or not, the graphic demonstrates the degree to which students feel that their math work is too easy; that they understand their teachers; the amount that they read each day; and whether they are taught about engineering. The findings for all of these questions are not good.

Badges vs Grades
While there is some legitimate criticism of the random application of limited gamification elements in traditional educational settings, perhaps this is one possible exception to that rule. Considering a switch from traditional letter or percentage grades to badges signifying achievement could open up many possibilities for a more fine-grained tracking of student progress, address some of the criticism regarding schools not teaching concrete skills, and motivating students to learn. Here's why.

  • The Little Picture – One of the criticisms of education reform is that in considering educational change we often take a view that fails to look at long-term, big picture results. This perspective forces us to look for "right now" fixes and easily quantifiable end results such as tests. Moving to a badge system, particularly a system with multiple levels of badges that can track small increments of progress in a long progression towards mastery, would expand the view of education to a longer time frame. This change would break educational outcomes into very small, manageable chunks that would be easy for students to aim for while providing a pathway to eventual mastery of anything, but particularly of concrete skills.
  • Making Learning Real – Because badges are not bound to any traditional disciplines such as English, Algebra, Physics, or Physical Education, they can be applied to smaller, more concrete skills and knowledge such as being able to write an introductory paragraph, solve complex equations, apply a particular physics concept, or meet a national fitness standard. Having a large number of potential badges available would allow students and their teachers to more accurately track progress and demonstrate when students have mastered very specific skills or applied their knowledge.
  • Making Learning Accessible – Finally, allowing students to quickly make progress towards smaller goals for which they are rewarded with tangible badges that can be collected and shared with peers and parents, and which have a real meaning for the accomplishment they represent, can be extremely motivating. In particular, student who may not be excellent test takers or who have difficulty putting their entire body of learning into a big picture context, can benefit from these intermediate goals and more concrete outcomes.

These are just three of the ways in which dropping traditional grades in favor of more versatile and concrete badges could benefit students and make it easier for teachers to be accountable for the real learning that students are accomplishing in their classes. There is a long tradition of using grades in our schools though, so overcoming both societal and institutional inertia in making this change is going to be challenging. Some innovative educational programs such as Quest to Learn and the Playmaker School are taking advantage of this strategy to motivate and engage their students with great success. Perhaps it is time for all schools to give up grades in favor of something that fits with our fast paced, technology rich world – Digital Badges.