Digital Badges in the First-Year Composition Classroom

Contributor: Spencer J Smith
Affiliation: Ohio State University
Email: spencer@smithbrainconnections.com
Released: 28 July 2017 
Published: Fall 2017 (Issue 22.1)


Digital media open up new possibilities for an oft-contested part of writing instructors’ praxes--grading. In this webtext, I investigate the use of digital badges for the assessment of student work. I first consult composition and education literature on new media and student motivation. Then, I give a description of a system I devised for my own first-year composition (FYC) classrooms based on a system created by Professor Stephanie West-Puckett. Next I write about a survey and interview I used to learn what my students thought of digital badges. I conclude this webtext with areas where more research is needed as well as advice for instructors interested in using digital badges in their own classrooms.

Digital Badges and Student Motivation

Research has suggested that digital badges can be used for assessment in a way that supports student motivation. However, there have not been sufficient empirical investigations into these connections. The Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory (HASTAC) has defined a digital badge as "a validated indicator of accomplishment, skill, quality, or interest that can be earned in many learning environments" (n.d.). A digital badge system, then, gives students a tangible (even if digital) item in exchange for demonstrating their learning. In my classroom, I awarded badges for successful completion of each of the major projects, attendance, participation, and other work and awarded a final grade based on the number of badges students earned. My hope was that this system would have a positive impact on student motivation. Early research into the classroom use of digital badges supports my thinking.

Questions of motivation (Yildrim, Kaban, Yildirim, & Çelik, 2016) and what digital badges will represent in the education landscape (Ash, 2012; Jacobs, 2012; Moodie, 2011; O'Shaughnessy, 2011) have recently been important to popular discussions about digital badges' place in education (both generally, and in higher education, specifically). Digital badges have been connected to Eva Baker's call, in her 2007 Presidential Address for the American Educational Research Association, for educators to begin devising ways to start thinking about "qualification" instead of "assessment" (Moodie, 2011). What are students qualified to do after learning something new? And are traditional grades the best way to show these qualifications? Multimedia journalist Alison Moodie (2011) has noted that universities have already been experimenting with using digital badges for credentialing and assessment. Indeed, scholars have noted how digital badges can be used to "provide diverse forms of recognition and assessment" in order to create a supportive learning environment (Tekinbas, Gresalfi, Peppler, & Santo, 2014, p. 12).

While some work has been done to research technology's capacity to create this kind of supportive learning environment framework for students in primary educational contexts (Hanghøj, 2015; Reynolds, Baik, & Li, 2013), less attention has been paid to how these principles actually work out in secondary and postsecondary contexts. Specifically, pedagogues do not confidently know what students think about the use of digital badges nor what effect these thoughts have on student performance. Researchers have hoped that a digital badge grading system can provide students 1) with pride in their work as well as 2) with increased motivation.

Indeed, learning scientists Samuel Abramovich and Peter Wardrip have theorized how digital badges might affect different models of motivation and have called for investigating the connection between digital badges and the motivation to learn (2016, p. 59). These theorizations seem to be in direct conflict with a meta-analysis of research on rewards (Deci, Koestner, & Ryan, 2001), which warned against using extrinsic rewards to increase motivation. I hoped to do the kind of investigation into motivation Abramovich and Wardrip (2016) called for by bringing digital badges into my classroom, but I knew I would need to empirically study digital badges to ensure they were doing something more than serving as extrinsic rewards.

A Study of a Digital Badge Assessment System

In order to conduct this study, I used a system in which eleven digital badges were assigned for each of the course’s major projects as well as for things like attendance, homework, and participation. Each additional digital badge corresponded to a letter final grade from A to a C-. Thus, eleven badges earned an A, ten an A-, nine a B+, and so on. All four major badges were required for students to achieve anything higher than a C in the class. A description of this system went directly into my syllabus, a hard copy of which was given to every student on the first day of class. I also put a digital copyof the syllabus on our class’s Blackboard site (the learning management system used by our university).

Figure 1: Digital Badges and Grades Chart from Syllabus
Figure 1: Digital Badges and Grades Chart from Syllabus

To create most of the badges (see Figure 2), I used Credly, a platform for the creation, assignment, and collection of digital badges. For the remaining badges, I used two pre-made achievements (see Figure 3) in the Blackboard Achievements tool.

Credly was founded to create alternative ways for people to demonstrate their competencies to each other and/or to organizations. Interestingly, Credly’s investors include organizations, like University Ventures, which fund and support initiatives to disrupt higher education and other accreditation processes. Credly is integrated with a few learning management systems (like Canvas and Moodle), as well as social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

Although my university did not use a learning management system that is integrated with Credly, I still chose to use Credly because it made badge-creation simple. It also offered me an account to keep track of the badges I created for individual courses in case I would want to reuse my badges from one section of a course to the next.

In addition to the small trouble of downloading the badges from Credly and then uploading them to Blackboard, there are two other possible complications with using the badges created with this platform. First, because Credly was founded as an initiative with backing from organizations seeking to disrupt higher education, administrators or instructors might oppose its use on ethical grounds. Second, the security of the platform might lead to problems; because anyone can create and assign a digital badge, using digital badges as the only form of assessment is probably unsustainable, especially in larger courses with hundreds of students.

Figure 2: Digital Badges Created with Credly
Figure 2: Digital Badges Created with Credly

Deciding that digital badges could work in my class of twenty students, I created the images that would be used as digital badges. Then I used Blackboard's Achievements tool to assign the badges. Some, like the attendance badge or the participation badge, I assigned manually. Blackboard allowed me to assign a badge manually to specific students in my class. At the beginning of the semester, I used this function to assign everyone the attendance badge; it belonged to my students until they accumulated more than three absences. For all of the major assignments, I set rules for when the corresponding badge would be automatically released to a student. On major assignments, I used four indicators: 0, 1, 2, and 3. Achieving a 2 on a paper earned the badge and a 3 earned both the assignment badge and the extra credit badge.

Badges Awarded and Connections to Course Outcomes

I awarded the digital badges associated with a project when an individual student successfully included all parts of the project in their final or revised drafts of the project. This policy was not dissimilar to how I used contract grading—a student could revise a project up until the end of the semester in order to get credit for that assignment. The same was true of my digital badge policy. For instance, in order to earn the visual analysis badge, students had to respond to each part of the rubric shown in Figure 4. In the scoring of the rubric, checks were used to designate satisfactory work. A minus was used to designate that some attempt had been made at the specific requirement, but it wasn't yet satisfactory. A plus was used when students exceeded expectations, and a 0 was used when no attempt at the expectation had been made. Students could revise an assignment until they received a check for the overall score.

Figure 3: Digital Badges Created in Blackboard
Figure 3: Digital Badges Created in Blackboard
Visual Analysis Rubric
Figure 4: Visual Analysis Rubric for Essay 1

The student whose work was assessed in Figure 4, for instance, had done mostly satisfactory work, but had fallen short in MLA formatting and in the introduction of the image being analyzed. Ultimately, this student was awarded the badge, though.

A digital badge system allowed me to be more confident in assigning grades of my students' work. For instance, if a student failed to focus on specific details of the image, I could tell them that they would earn their badge as soon as they were able to revise their project to include that requirement. It also meant that I felt that my students understood that I was not calling them bad writers when they did not earn a badge. Instead, they simply had not yet done everything that was asked of them. 

In order to communicate these distinctions, for every project I left comments throughout students' papers as well as longer end comments. The end comment was especially important in motivating students to earn the badge when they had failed to do so on their first attempt. The most frequent end comment on projects that did not earn the badge, especially at the beginning of the semester, discussed how strong the student's description and analysis were, but told students they would earn the visual analysis badge when they had given me a draft of their paper that included a works cited page. Without a works cited page, students received a 0 in the first requirement on the rubric, and thus earned less than a check for the entire project.

When designing this system, I hoped that it would make achievement in my course a social activity. I had dreams of students bragging to each other about their newly minted badges after a successful project. After the awarding of the first couple of badges, there was some of this talk with some prompting from me. But ultimately, like most grading systems I suspect, students lost their excitement even though I was sure to use talk about the badges when discussing the major assignments (e.g., "If you don't include a solid analysis of your image, I will ask for a rewrite before you receive your badge"). However, I hope this system succeeded in a more important aspect than encouraging students to brag to each other about their grades.

In the syllabus, on the same page where I explained the grading system, I wrote: This course is set up so that many of the projects are self-directed. You can choose to earn any badge at any time in the semester. I have written a schedule for the class that, if followed and committed to by you, will allow you to earn a B or higher. I want you to use this course to learn and refine a system of time management that works for you. If you don't follow the schedule, you MUST meet with me to set up a schedule to submit your assignments.

I hoped that having periodic external rewards would make students more willing to talk with me about their grades and would give them more agency in advocating for themselves.

Student Feedback and Changes

In order to earn a glimpse into what my students thought about digital badges and how those thoughts affected their learning and motivation, I conducted an online anonymous survey and also held an interview with a student who volunteered for the interview on a question asked on the survey. 

In the survey, I asked, “Describe your experience with the digital badge grading system. Questions you may consider: How well do you think you understand it? How does it affect your willingness to work?” I found that about half the class reported being motivated by the digital badges and feeling like they had more control over their grades. Ten students wrote about some version of motivation, saying things like “It gives students the motivation to achieve the grade they want” and “It helps motivate me to do better and get my work done on time.” Six students did not respond to this survey question. The remaining four gave answers about struggling to understand the system or answers that misunderstood the system.

A few students, then, reported that they did not understand their grade in the class. When I brought the student who volunteered for the interview into my office, I also found this confusion. When asked about the downsides of the system, the student replied that he did not know where he stood in the class. As a result, I spent time thinking about how to make my system better. Originally, students were expected to keep track of their digital badges on their own, but upon learning that there was some confusion around this, I created a folder on Blackboard to house all of the badges so that students just had one place on our site to visit to find out their digital badge number.

The rest of the interview, though, seemed to support the research linking digital badges and motivation. The student reported being better able to conceptualize what needed to be done to achieve the grade he wanted to achieve.

Further Application and Study

Although I feel like this grading system did give students more agency and prompted many more students advocating for themselves than my traditionally graded courses did, I do not know that I would use digital badges again in a first-year composition system in which I was the only instructor using them. I did not have students meeting with me to discuss new due dates of major assignments like I wrote about in my syllabus. Additionally when students did poorly, I fear that they placed their frustration on the grading system rather than on their work. In this sense, for a few of my students, digital badges may have been a pedagogical failure: I had two students who contested their final grades after I had submitted them.

I interpret this contestation as confusion over the system since no students complained about or contested their grade-level in the class during the semester. Mostly, students were open to being assessed with digital badges. I think this openness was largely due to the way I talked about the system throughout the course. I designed this system in order to encourage students to have conversations with me about their grades that moved beyond fighting for points or percentages. When I introduced it to my students, instead of drawing the obvious connections to video game culture, I tied it to Boy Scout and Girl Scout badges. Not being an avid gamer myself, I let my more video-game-oriented students draw that connection themselves. Perhaps because of this orientation to the digital badges, I think most of my students felt like their final grades and badges appropriately reflected the work they did in my class. My students who wanted a traditional grade knew that their badges at the end of the semester would transform into a traditional letter grade.

While I am reluctant to use digital badges in FYC courses again, I can imagine them being effective in three types of composition courses: in advanced composition courses, in digital media composition courses, and in composition pedagogy courses. It might be effective in an advanced composition course to assign readings from literacy scholar James Paul Gee, for instance, to think about how assessment, new media, and motivation all affect literacy. Similarly, it might be powerful to learn about new media in a digital media composition course while the instructor modeled using new media for clasroom procedures. And finally, I can imagine digital badges being used in a composition pedagogy course to model an alternative assesment system while students begin to craft their own ideas about how to run their own composition classrooms.

Instructors interested in using digital badges in their courses should think about two things. First, what kind of support is there in their departments for nontraditional grading systems? If a student complains to the head of the department about the grading, will the head back up the instructor? Are there other instructors in the department using nontraditional grading systems? Second, what is the pedagogical motivation for using digital badges? For instance, I used digital badges to teach my students to think about their grades as more often a collaborative achievement with their instructors rather than something their instructors simply assigned.

While I am unsure whether I succeeded in my pedagogical motivation of giving students more agency, I am encouraged by the results of this small study. Changing our assessment systems can change the way students think about their work. We know from Deci et al. (2001) that assessment systems can affect student motivation. Additionally, education has been charged by Baker (2007) and led by scholars like Tekinbas et al. (2014) to rely on creative technology, like digital badges, to disrupt the grading expectations that first-year students bring with them from their secondary educations.

Effects of assessment systems are largely understudied. In order to make the kinds of connections that the literature on digital badges wants to make, comparative studies must be done. It is not enough to do qualitative studies of classrooms only using digital badges; studies must be created that provide a view of student motivation across classrooms with different systems for assessment and grading. I hope this webtext has provided footing for such studies in the future.


Abramovich, Samuel, & Wardrip, Peter S. (2016). Impact of badges on motivation to learn. In Lin Y. Muilenburg, & Zane L. Berge (Eds.), Digital badges in education: Trends, issue, and cases (pp. 5361). New York, NY: Routledge. 

Ash, Katie. (2012). "Digital badges" would represent students' skill acquisition. Education Week. Retrieved July 17, 2017, from http://www.edweek.org/dd/articles/2012/06/13/03badges.h05.html

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Credly. (n.d.). Retrieved July 17, 2017, from https://credly.com/

Deci, Edward L., Koestner, Richard, & Ryan, Richard M. (2001). Extrinsic rewards and intrinsic motivation in education: Reconsidered once again. Review of Educational Research, 71(1), 127. doi: 10.3102/00346543071001001

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Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory. (n.d.). Digital badges. Retrieved July 17, 2017, from http://www.hastac.org/digital-badges

Jacobs, Joanne. (2012). Digital badges threaten colleges' monopoly on credentials. US News & World Report. Retrieved July 17, 2017, from https://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/articles/2012/01/20/digital-badges-threaten-colleges-monopoly-on-credentials

Moodie, Alison. (2011). Digital "badges" proposed as alternative way to assess skills. Edsource. Retrieved July 17, 2017, from https://edsource.org/2011/digital-badges-proposed-as-alternative-way-to-assess-skills/2475

O'Shaugnessy, Lynn. (2011). Digital badges could significantly impact higher education. US News & World Report. Retrieved July 17, 2017, from http://www.usnews.com/education/blogs/the-college-solution/2011/10/04/digital-badges-could-significantly-impact-higher-education

Reynolds, Rebecca B., Baik, Eun, & Li, Xiaofeng. (2013). Collaborative information seeking in the wild: Middle-schoolers' self-initiated teamwork strategies to support game design. Proceedings of the Association for Information Science and Technology 50(1), 111. doi: 10.1002/meet.14505001083

Tekinbas, Katie Salen, Gresalfi, Melissa, Peppler, Kylie, & Santo, Rafi. (2014). Gaming the system: Designing with Gamestar Mechanic. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

West-Puckett, Stephanie. (2016). Syllabus. Retrieved July 17, 2017, from https://makercomp.wordpress.com/about

Yildirim, Serkan, Kaban, Abdullatif, Yildirim, Gürkan, & Çelik, Embiya. (2016). The effect of digital badges specialization level of the subject on the achievement, satisfaction and motivation levels of the students. The Turkish Online Journal of Educational Technology 15(3), 169182. Retrieved July 17, 2017, from https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1106420

Created by matthew. Last Modification: Tuesday 01 of August, 2017 12:36:28 UTC by kristi.