I am considering adding badges to a course I am developing to try to get the students to try new things, and acknowledge constructive behavior.

I have seen badges employed in two ways:

  1. all of the badges and what you need to do to earn them is described up front (e.g., Stack Exchange)

  2. all or some of the badges are secret until you earn/unlock them

What are the relative strengths and weakness of each of these approaches and which would be better suited to an educational setting?

Edit: To clarify a point made in the answers. The badges will not be tied to the grading/evaluation in any way. They will be used as a bit of fun and motivation just like they are used here on SE. The grading/evaluation will be completely transparent and described in the syllabus.

5 Answers 5


If all of them are "hidden", then it discourages the initial "buy in", but if all of them are "visible", then users will tend to just do what's needed to get the badges.

Mixing them up is a good solution, with easier badges visible right off to get the initial buy-in (in some cases a "you pressed the start button!" badges), and then some hidden to encourage exploration.

  • Interesting, do you think the badges on SE could be more effective is some were hidden and unlocked at upper levels?
    – DQdlM
    Commented Jul 29, 2013 at 23:56
  • Maybe not "hidden", per-se... but the requirements not made visible. There needs to be a balance though, there needs to be some that are discoverable at every level and some open at every level. And they all need to be visible. I would lean towards more 2/3 of the requirements visible. You want to get people invested in the badges, and able to reach them. Don't forget the reason for them is to encourage exploration and be a sort of social rank. I've got badge 'x' so you know I have some 'street cred'
    – Don Nickel
    Commented Jul 30, 2013 at 11:51

There's a third possibility: let students/players know that a badge exists, but not how to get it. The name of the badge might be a hint, or it may be more or less unrelated to what must be done, but if they know it's there they'll look for ways to get it.


I'd divide rewards in education app on two parts:

  • Mandatory badges, which are necessary to gain and which are the gamified student's assessment (grading). Students should be awared of them, these are the things they are striving, so it should be totally clear for them
  • Supporting badges, which are not necessary for course finishing, but they are external incentives that pushes students further (spent more time on course, read additional materials, etc.). These could be unknown for students.

Variable ratio reward shedule (i.e. unknown for students) shows great results:

The variable ratio schedule produces both the highest rate of responding and the greatest resistance to extinction

So combining both ways is the best outcome.

  • Thanks for your answer, both you and Don Nickel, suggest a mixed approach, do you think the SE badges could be more effective if there were multiple tiers that could be unlocked at higher levels?
    – DQdlM
    Commented Jul 29, 2013 at 23:59
  • In fact, you can't say whether all the SE badges are described or unlocked ). Besides although one could read about badges earning, I think rare people are hunting for badges having detailed plan how to do it. Commented Jul 30, 2013 at 3:49

Any badges which impact a student's grade must not be secret, though personally my tendency would be for all badges to be public.

In the context of a graded class, I consider it very bad practice to have any sort of hidden reward system. Students should know exactly what you require of them in order to do well.

Further, from a student's perspective there is no easy way to differentiate between secret badges and badges you created after the fact to reward students you happen to like. I realize there are technical solutions to this problem, but they don't fix the emotional response.

  • I completely agree that anything used for evaluation must be transparent. All of the graded material will be fully described in the syllabus. The badges will be just another form of motivation/fun. I edited the question to clarify this. Thanks for pointing it out.
    – DQdlM
    Commented Jul 29, 2013 at 23:55
  • This is better, but personally I still feel uncomfortable with secret badges.
    – Brian
    Commented Jul 30, 2013 at 13:06

In his book 'Drive', Dan Pink talks about how 'if-then' rewards (if you do this, I'll give you this) can have a negative impact on intrinsic motivation.

In particular, he found that expected rewards dampened motivations for tasks that were non-routine. Conversely, he found that unexpected rewards (rewards given after the fact), had no such negative impact on intrinsic motivation.

This can be found in Chapter 2 of his book - Seven Reasons Carrots and Sticks (Often) Dont' Work... > Intrinsic Motivation.

So to apply it to your context (especially since badges do not affect grades) -

  1. Make all of the badges are secret until you earn/unlock them
  2. Let students know that you'll be giving out badges by giving out a few really easy to get badges in the first day you meet your students. For example, earliest to arrive badge or first to ask a question badge. Do not make mention of future badges, leave that question hanging.
  3. Give out badges that are harder to achieve in future classes.

This way, students will know that badges are given out, but don't know when or what to expect for them. Everyone gets to have some fun in class and students will not have their intrinsic motivation eaten away by the expected reward.

  • 1
    Do you think that students don't talk amongst themselves? As soon as the first student earns a hidden badge, knowledge is out and will circulate thus enabling other students to go hunt for that badge. Intrinsic motivation may be damaged by "if-then" rewards, but in a competitive setting they can also work the other way around: he has that badge, and now I want it too... Commented Jul 30, 2013 at 11:33
  • When the badges are given out to the class/course, it will be pubically given out. So in the first day all students will know that the professor/instructor gives out badges. But students can't expect a reward because they don't know how to earn one. Sure, in a competitive setting, it might cause other students to want one too. It's a fair point, but what's the downside to this?
    – Zach
    Commented Jul 30, 2013 at 16:50
  • 1
    No downside. My point is that your argument for hidden badges doesn't hold in this setting. Students will know how to earn an initially hidden badge as soon as the first student gets it. The negative impact of 'if-then' rewards should kick in immediately only to be offset by the positive impact of competitiveness between students to earn that previously "hidden" badge and find other as yet hidden badges. So I don't see any point in hiding the badges in the first place, especially in this student setting. Commented Jul 30, 2013 at 19:12
  • Hi Marjan, thanks for clarifying. Yes you might be right. I made the implicit assumption that badges once earned will not be 'earn-able' again. So the professor will have to come up with different badges for the duration of the course. Which, on second thought, might require a more work and was probably not a great assumption to make!
    – Zach
    Commented Jul 31, 2013 at 7:34

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