Badges, Rewards, Schoology, and You!

What a week! My game, and the site, are in full swing. Things are going way better than I ever imagined. My kids have found 9 of the current 20 clues currently published in my ARG and are absolutely in love with the leaderboards (which is fully up and running if you want to check it out). They’ve checked the leaderboards hundreds of times in a little over a week. Maybe my favorite part of all the opening week action is reading the discussions they are having with each other about the game and checking the post times. I have 40% participation and these kids are playing at all hours of the day (and night!) and are even playing when they are in other classes at school (I almost feel bad). They posted so many comments in the game folder on Schoology that I had to give them the ability to start their own threads. I initially anticipated opening a weekly thread, but the First Week thread I already made has so many comments in it (231 so far. That’s over thirty a day!) that you can’t read them all because they got squished up against each other as students reply to other students, as shown in this picture. The grey lines link students’ replies to each other.


In my class, I call badges Achievements because it sounds more epic. During this first week, I overheard multiple students bragging about having earned one of the handful of Achievements I’ve handed out thus far and planning out what they are saving up to buy out of the item shop. It’s not only my students who love the Achievements, but it seems you guys do as well. Of the fifty or so e-mails I’ve received, most of them have been about Achievements (badges). How I design them, how I hand them out, how I came up with them, what is their point. So, lets talk about them.

*Caution: This is a long one, and it will help if you refer back to my game site.*

The most common question I’ve been e-mailed is how/why/should students be rewarded with Achievements. Now, I have no interest in joining the intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation debate, but I feel very strongly about how students should be rewarded with Achievements. So, we are going to Tarantino this Achievement making process and start at the end because before you start making Achievements, you need to give them reasons to exist.

Achievements must extrinsically reward students. In my class, earned Achievements come with Achievement Points (ap). How much ap you get depends on how hard the badge was to earn. With ap students can buy extrinsic rewards. When I was doing my research, as I prepared to transform my class, I came across an article by Gabe Zicherman. In it, he says he likes to use a marketing reward schema called SAPS: Status, Access, Power, Stuff. I’ve adapted this reward system for my classroom:

Status is about raising the social standing of students/guilds.

Access is about giving students/guilds something that not everyone can have.

Power is about giving students or guilds a way to affect each other.

Stuff is about just that. Giving them physical things.

In my adapted reward system, I immediately eliminated certain types of stuff. My students won’t be getting things that cost money (snacks, drinks), nor will they be getting homework passes. I think it is a recipe for disaster. Stuff like pens, paper, and bathroom passes are fair game, but generally I don’t like stuff as a reward, so there aren’t many. Fun fact: no one asks to go to the bathroom in my class because they don’t want to waste their ap. I don’t even have a bathroom pass this year!

Access is hard to do with high school kids. Giving kids the choice to spend ap on eating lunch with the teacher, or leaving for recess a few minutes early or staying a few minutes late, works great in elementary school… not so much in high school. In my class, if students buy the proper perk (I love the Fallout franchise), they can listen to their music in class, can move to the top of the grading pile, hand in late homework that would not normally be accepted (they are still penalized), can redo an assignment they underperformed on (I take the average of the two), or can change their Learner Tag (player name) and/or guild name. If students don’t buy these perks, they can’t do those things. These rewards (really all of your rewards) should be one time only, not buy it once and do it all the time. That’s access. Deep thought: your rewards should never completely remove a penalty. I don’t accept late homework unless they’ve bought the perk from the item store. Still, even with the perk, they only get half credit instead of full credit. Don’t remove all consequences with badges, but lessen them.

Power is also hard to do, again, especially in high school. Power in elementary school is making someone the line leader, the class-helper, all those jobs we assign those little folks increase their power over others. But, in high school, how can I allow students/guilds to affect other students/guilds fairly? Power rewards, if poorly planned, can backfire big time. Like if you allowed students to steal points from other students’ actual grade (which I thought of doing before coming to my senses). I’ve only been able to come up with two power rewards. I allow guilds to purge points from other guilds on the leaderboard in a way that doesn’t affect anyone’s actual grade and I allow students to inversely affect other students by boosting their own grade with an 10% xp booster. What I mean by inversely affect is that if student (a) only buys xp (what the “work” in class is worth) boosters with their ap, and student (b) does not, student (a) will shoot to the top of the leaderboard. If student (b) wants a shot at being on top of the leaderboard, they then must buy xp boosters too, even if they don’t want to. Thus student (a) has affected the behavior of student (b) and that’s a form of power. That makes sense in my head, hopefully it makes sense when you read it!

Maybe the easiest rewards for me to make has been status rewards. Status rewards in my class come from the leaderboard. My students are ranked by Player vs. Player (PvP) based on xp, PvP based on level (student level is a combination of xp and ap), they are ranked guild vs. guild and also by class vs. class. If you, your guild, or your class is doing well, you’ve got status! Status, I believe, is mostly derived from head to head competition and is mandatory for a gamified class to be successful. Eventually, students will be able to buy custom colors and titles for their Learner Tags. For example. Joe Smith can spend ap points to have his name appear as The Fantastic Joe Smith on the leaderboard and more can spend more ap to color his name bright red.

Now that we covered the extrinsic purpose of your badges, we need to cover their intrinsic purpose. Yes, they can have both! Thus the reason I refused to participate in the extrinsic vs. instinct reward debate. Debaters think its black and white and, like most things, it’s actually gray. How can Achievements be intrinsic? The Bartle Test tells us that four types of people play video games. These players can be one of, or a combination of all of, these types of players:

Achievers – Achievers want stuff. Lots of stuff. An Achiever wants all the badges just to say they have all the badges. To intrinsically motivate these Achievers, some of your achievements should be ridiculously hard to get. I have an achievement called En Fuego!. This achievement is awarded when a student gets three A’s in a row on their essays. I’m a tough grader, especially on essays, this badge wasn’t designed for everyone. It was designed for the Achiever. Make most of your badges obtainable by anyone, have a hand full that are tough to get, and have one or two that are damn near impossible. This will motivate the Achievers in your class.

Socializers – Socalizers love to work together and form friendships. These are most of the girls I teach (though you’d be surprised just how competitive some of the girls are). I created guild vs. guild and class vs. class not only for the competition, but also for the camaraderie. My most avid Socalizers have started to created guild logos and/or class banners at no prompting from myself. They love to unite people.

Gladiators– Gladiators love competition. These are most of my boys. To a Gladiator, nothing feels better than to crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women. Just another reason why competition is necessary to a successful gamifed classroom. I have achievements for Gladiators, individually and by guild. Those who finish in the top 10 for the week, who are in first place, and/or who are able to regain their spot on the leaderboard get rewards.

Explorers – Explorers love to discover. I think everyone is at least partially an Explorer. I cater to all these Explorers by having a third of my achievements be a secret. Only by trying new things can an Explorer ever hope to unlock all my Secret Achievements. Additionally, you can cater to an Explorer by working Easter Eggs into your game. An Easter Egg is an intentional inside joke or an allusion to another game/work. For example, I’d imagine only some of you caught the Conan the Barbarian reference in the previous paragraph or the allusion to Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction earlier. If you did, it probably made you smile when you read it. It feels cool to catch a reference that not everyone gets. Easter Eggs are a great way to make Explorers feel special.

We’ve talked about how to reward students and what types of “gamer” students you might have in your classroom. These two things should begin to flesh out how you should be designing your badges, but I also need to talk from less of a video game design perspective and more from a teacher perspective. Close examination of my Achievements hopefully reveals, overall, a general rewarding of students’ who are being good people and/or making good decisions. Even though I teach English, for the last nine years I’ve said the same thing to my students: “I don’t  care if you learn anything about English. My purpose is to make you a better person than when you walked into this class.” Intrinsically, most of my badges reward good behavior and decision making. For instance, while I can’t reveal too many of my secret badges because I’m sure some of my students have found this site by now, I will tell you about one secret achievement I never anticipate having to use since my students are so good this year: The Beyond Thunderdome! Achievement (which of you Explorer’s know the reference!?). This is a Secret Achievement I’ve designed to reward students who, when they come into conflict with each other, keep their cool and handle their business like adults: they talk out their problems instead of fight. Most, if not all, of my Achievements reinforce positive behavior. So, as a teacher, I would think some, if not all, of your badges should be designed to reward actions you would want your own child to exude, good work habits, and a strong work ethic. Keep an eye on the Achievement section of my site. As Secret Achievements are awarded you will get a better idea of what I’m talking about.

As for the actual design and dissemination of my badges, Schoology really saved the day with its summer implementation of their badge system. Until Schoology announced their badge system, I had no idea how I was going to make them or hand them out. I got lucky. This is just another reason why I think a Learning Management System (LMS) is a must have for every gamified classroom (really, every classroom).

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These are what a few of my Schoolgy badges look like. Whether you use Schoology or not (you should) you can apply the principles of my badges to yours. I try to make the badge titles and pictures funny because the kids like it. Don’t like high school kids lie to you; the cheesier a badge picture and titel are the better (wait until they see my Back to School Night badge). Students don’t see a badge until they actually earn it (another way to reward Achievers and Explorers). Students come in and want to show off the badges to students who don’t have them yet. I don’t give students access to my Achievement spreadsheet, so I also include the ap value on the Achievements, so students can keep track of how much ap they have (and plan their spending in the Item Shop).

The color of the badge border and the Roman numeral is used to overcome one of the limitations of Schoology’s badge system. Schoology’s badge system is near perfect, but does have two limitations. First, Schoology does not allow you to hand the same badge out more than once. For example, I want to reward a student every time they hand in an essay early because that’s a good habit. On Schoology, I can’t just give them the same badge, so what I have to do is make a whole new badge. I call it the same thing, but just add an extra Roman numeral on it and change the border’s color. Early Bird I (the name of my hand-it-in-early badge) is a bronze color, Early Bird II is silver, Early Bird III is gold. Your badges’ border colors, numbers, and ap value should reflect their rank and difficulty.  Now, doing it this way, I can hand out the same badge an infinite amount of times. The other limitation of Schoology’s badge system is that they take whatever picture you want to use as the background of your badge and turn it into a square 115×115 .png. This becomes a pain because all of Schoology’s borders are circular, so with a square background you must find a picture that has what you want in the middle of the picture. I use for a lot of my badge background needs.

Schoology got everything else right. The two best things that Schoology has included in their badge system is the ability to let students know what they did to earn the badge, as Achievements are meaningless if a student doesn’t know why they earned it, and Schoology has made badges viewable in a student’s profile. Whether you use Schoology or not, tell students why they’ve earned a specific badge and make it mandatory for students to display the badges they’ve earned for all to see. Schoology does this well as you can see by this student’s profile:


This was a lot to write and revise, and I feel my Achievements and reward system is so nuanced, it only makes sense it my head. If I had to tl;dr this process for you, I would say this: make your badges in varying degrees of difficulty that publicly (using an LMS) reward your students both intrinsically by type of “gamer” you teach and extrinsically with rewards that reinforce positive traits. If any of this was unclear, or you have a specific question, feel free to leave a comment and I will gladly go into more depth. Since it’s Sunday, the rest of my day involves football and Breaking Bad, so feel free to get at me.

Until then,