Gamification - How to Use Digital Badges to Hack Learner Motivation


Gamification: How to Use Digital Badges to Hack Learner Motivation

June 4, 2020 | 7 Min Read

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In today’s gamified learning environment, digital badges have evolved from an external reward to an intrinsic source of learner motivation. Find out how you can use gamification badges in your eLearning program.

What are Gamification Badges?

Gamification badges don’t have to look like traditional pins, medals, or girl guide patches—but they are distinct icons that reward a specific learner achievement.

Whether it's a student progressing from one module to the next, or an employee adding to their skillset, digital badges let learners know that their success is noticed and appreciated.

Badges can be used with, or as an alternative to, other grading systems such as points or percentages—the key here is that digital badges are not the end goal that learners are working towards. Instead, acquiring badges motivates learners to continue along a learning pathway, picking up micro-credentials on the route to a more formal qualification.

Need to go back a step? Read this blog for clarity on the differences between Gamification vs Game-based Learning.

What kinds of gamification badges are there?

Basic badges. Basic badges tend to be simple emblems that signify the completion of easier or more introductory learning goals.

Achievements. These badges are awarded for learning goals that involve multiple steps or a higher level of complexity. They can also be used to reward special events such as the first (or hundredth) time a learner makes a post on an LMS discussion board.

Awards. These are given to learners for exclusive, one-time opportunities. For example, learners who complete an entire learning module, or who are consistently the highest performing learner in their training program.

Micro-credentialling. Other good times to award badges include recognizing valuable skills that are either too new for formal certification, or otherwise fall between the cracks of more official forms of recognition.  

From there, let your L&D imagination run wild! You could think about incorporating badges for progress, to recognize the efforts of struggling learners—or, consider using extra-credit badges to create a reward space for learners who go above and beyond.

Blog gamification - open badge stores metadata exampleBadges are an effective way to store and transfer metadata (Source: Bryan Mathers, CC-BY-ND).



Digital badges—best practices

  • A good badge is not just shiny and desirable. They should also contain metadata to communicate the details of the badge to anyone looking for verification or more context. A full meta-description should include who the badge was awarded to, when, and why (the badge criteria). Depending on the badge’s design, some of this information might also appear visually.

  • Badges work best when part of larger gamified user experiences. This includes the creation of goals or directives for learners to work towards, as well as some clear rules of the game. Perhaps counterintuitively, clear rules are often necessary to encourage creativity and a sense of play.

  • Open Badges is a collaborative movement that solves the issue of learners leaving badges behind when they move organizations—by the end of 2016, they’d awarded just under one million badges. The best badge systems don’t just work internally, but also allow engaged learners to build a picture of their learning journey, which is recognizable beyond their own organization.


Blog gamification - Open Badge projects across North AmericaOpen Badge projects across North America (Source: BadgeTheWorld).


How do gamification badges increase learner motivation?

The traditional or analogue idea of badges is a kind of recognition awarded upon completion of a task. Learning to swim, donating blood, voting in an election—badges act to increase the appeal, or extrinsic motivation, of a task.

Based on continued research in the eLearning sphere, however, digital badges are now being used to recognize events along the learning journey. Instead of marking an endpoint, badges act as a way of helping learners to gradually build intrinsic motivation for wider learning goals. 

A 2019 literature review for badge design came up with three criteria for how effective digital badges are likely to be at increasing learning motivation. These are:

  • Whether the type of learning activity is physical or conceptual.

  • Whether the activity requires independent or collaborative learning.

  • Whether the task involved in earning badges is simple and short-term, or continuous and long-term.

Based on what configuration of these conditions an eLearning task meets, badge design and effectiveness can change. For example, in a conceptual, group, and long-term eLearning activity, badges are most effective when awarded to encourage each team member to perform their individual role.

On the other hand, badges were found to raise motivation for physical, independent, and short term eLearning activities when awarded for easier tasks, which may need to be repeated for a period before ‘levelling-up.’

These findings suggest that badges motivate learners by providing a small ‘boost’ at a specific time of need during the learning process. Recalling the wider gamification method of using game-like features to improve learning, this is akin to the tools (and tricks) game designers use to keep players engaged for long periods of time.

As this video on game engagement-design notes, players are more likely to remain engaged when content is rhythmic and maintains a sense of pace, which is something that the regular awarding of badges seems to facilitate.

It’s important to stress here that there’s a big difference between designing for engagement and designing for addiction. While many (especially mobile) games attempt to hijack brain reward systems to keep people gaming, gamification badges are safely on the non-invasive, ethical side when it comes to encouraging users to continue interacting.

Plan more enaging learning with proper assessment. Check out this webinar to learn more.

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Interested in other motivation-boosting gamification methods? Try our blog on 4 Ways to Use Gamification to Measure Engagement.

Blog gamification - Badges work best when part of larger gamified UX

Badges work best when part of larger gamified user experiences (Source: UX Collective (Duolingo), Gamification: A guide for designers to a misunderstood concept).


What are the results?

A 2015 study into the use of digital badges on undergraduates found that badges function differently according to the type of learner. Results indicated a generally positive view of badges, though levels of motivation to earn badges where highest in learners who also had the highest expectations of themselves. This suggests that badges are generally more effective on learners who are (at least somewhat) already engaged.

Likewise, a study from the same year on high school eLearners found that badges were judged to act as a motivator and sign of credibility within a program. However, respondents noted the possible drawback of a lack of translation of that credibility to audiences external, without the presence of some mechanism to allow external stakeholders to understand a badges’ validity.

A 2017 paper on perceptions and uses of digital badges in professional training contexts found that learners took to badges as a way of micro-credentialing their non-credit learning and accomplishments. Learners intended on using their digital badges in a variety of ways, such as sharing them on social media and in job searches, with many finding the badges motivating and aiding their perseverance to complete a program.

For other ideas on How to Reduce Disengagement with Gamification, try our webinar!

Blog gamification - screenshot of user badge collection in Totara AcademyA user’s badge collection in Totara Academy (Source:


How Can I Add Gamification Badges into My LMS?

It’s often suggested that educators incorporate digital badges into the learning environment by tiering them. This refers to a strategy where badges are awarded to learners according to the level of commitment or complexity required for the task at hand.

A simple three-tier badge system could look like:

  • A basic-level badge: Earned for achieving a basic understanding of learning technology and for consulting with the learning centre.

  • A proficient-level badge: For faculty members who have implemented technologies, accumulated data and results, and shared their findings with peers.

  • An advanced-level badge: For faculty members who have demonstrated broader implementation, undergone formal peer review, or shared their expertise beyond the institution.

Ultimately, the way you incorporate badges into eLearning activities will depend on your learners themselves. A system for allocating and tiering badges can be as complex as the learning process your learners are involved in, building multiple levels of achievements, even adding in easter eggs—hidden materials or references within other content. Try this post for suggestions on how to hide easter eggs in your own lesson materials.

For the full picture of gamification in eLearning, this is the webinar to watch: Gamification 101 – What It Is and How to Get Started.

Here at Lambda Solutions, we help LMS users every day with modifications and customizations, including the addition of features such as gamification badges. If that sounds like you, contact us today and start getting more out of your training program!

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