Bad for Badging: Achievement in Writing Courses

Shield-shaped badge, grey background, with sketched image of ostrich with head buried

There’s a badge for people who avoid badges. It was created, somewhat as a joke, by Kelvin Thompson, Associate Director of the Center for Distributed Learning at the University of Central Florida. He created the badge in response to a Twitter conversation from skeptics of the current badging fad. Count me among that group’s supporters. I’ll go a step further and say I think the badging movement is antithetical to effective writing instruction.
I recently heard Thompson give a plenary speech about the use of badges in education. His talk was part of the closing showcase of UCF’s IDL6543 training for faculty who want to teach online courses; the faculty-students had finished their initial online course designs and were preparing to show off their creations to an audience of their peers. Thompson was introducing one of the latest fads in educational technology to a group of people who were officially beginning their journey into teaching online. He had a captive audience of learners who were ready to explore new opportunities in the delivery of their courses. Opportunities to use badges in online learning have grown right along with the overall popularity of the fad, and Thompson acknowledged being in the leeward side of the Peak of Inflated Expectations (part of Gartner’s Hype Cycle) in terms of the popularity and critical use of badges overall, and in education in particular.
Thompson cited far more uses of badges in education than I knew about, and he posed a question for reflection near the end of his talk: How could we use badges in our work?
One example of the use of badges on our campus comes from the Information Fluency (IF) department. They have developed training initiatives for students, and in an effort to motivate students to complete the courses, IF offers badges for each module, silver badges for completing each of three module tracks, plus a gold “über-badge” for completing all three tracks. Librarians will reportedly give students a free hug for showing they’ve earned the über-badge. As I have not yet completed the training, I cannot verify those claims.
According to Thompson, the IF staff have been happy with the increased utilization of the training modules, but their initial pilot is still underway, so he couldn’t report final statistics.
When asked to consider how I could implement badging in my classes, my reaction surprised me with how intensely negative it was. I’m admittedly becoming less and less an early adopter of technology over time, just as auto-update systems, app stores with no physical media and no ability to download previous versions are gaining popularity and the idea of downgrading anything has become passé…just my luck. My resistance to early adoption, especially when using technology in class, makes me hesitant to use badges in the first place.
But my biggest problem goes back to a problem I have with trends in assessment, particularly in fields other than composition. In a growing number of places, students earn credit based on how much they do, rather than how good their work is. Even assignments that have rubrics for scoring use completion as the standard for earning points: to earn more points, students have to do more things, rather than doing fewer things but doing them better.
Maybe it’s because I love teaching writing, and technically, my students each come to me knowing how to write. I try and help them learn to write better. To me, that sense of improvement, of attention to quality, forms the essence of my class, my work, and my students’ goals. I can tell any student to write a paper, and they can. I can tell any student to write a certain number of paragraphs, and they will. But if I tell students to create a document that achieves a purpose effectively, they freeze up. I have one student this semester who is very capable with language but who struggles to think independently about her writing situations. She keeps asking for clear-cut writing guidelines and definitive answers to her “is it okay if we…” or “how many words/paragraphs/pages should we…” questions. My refusal to answer directly creates genuine despair for her. My efforts to explain why I can’t answer directly, and why the expectations of writing are situationally dictated seem to make sense but provide little comfort for her. She is stuck in a mindset that believes every problem in life has one correct solution. Her mindset is perfect for badge-based rewards.
This student wants to have a writing situation that can be defined by small, absolute, quantifiable goals that can be met or not met. She wants to know how much to do, how much to create, and which words to use. What she doesn’t want to do (or perhaps is merely so frighteningly unaccustomed to that it scares her) is set her own goals, terms, and boundaries for her work. Let me provide a couple examples from my life that should help clarify.
Early in Kelvin Thompson’s talk, he asked for a show of hands from the audience to see who had and had not earned badges for things they had accomplished. The result created a striking ageist divide in the room. People under 40 raised their hands. People over 40 did not. When Thompson asked for a couple people to share what kind of badges they had earned, I hoped he didn’t call on me. I didn’t want to confess to my Untappd badges among that group, lest they think less of me for my love of craft beer. (I prepared a back-up plan: I was going to follow the Untappd disclosure with a mention of my Fitocracy badges, hoping to balance out the image.)

Badge from Untappd

Badges from Untappd are a clear-cut example of how badges can work well in an environment that values quantifiable, not value-laden, assessment of achievement. I’ve earned badges for drinking a large variety of beers. The count mattered; I was not asked to drink the beers well. I’ve earned badges for the days on which I drank beer (International Stout Day, St. Patrick’s Day, etc.); I was not asked to improve the quality of my drinking on those days. I’ve also earned badges for the types of beers I drink (stouts, high-ABV beers, beers from UK breweries, etc.); I was not asked to drink better beers. In each of these cases, no determination of quality was made. I either drank the beer and earned the badge, or I didn’t. For that matter, whether I drink the full beer or only a sip of it, the fact that I checked in the beer I was drinking earns me the badge. In that light, the meaning of “a drink” can be called into question. Does a 5-ounce sample count? When the point is to track the beers I’ve tried, I think it does, but nothing in the system distinguishes. (For that matter, the dark beers I enjoy often have higher alcohol contents—and higher price tags—than common lighter beers. Yet I still earn the same one-drink credit for each. Fair? Not sure.)

Running badge from Fitocracy

Badges from Fitocracy are slightly more complex. They start simple, similar to those from Untappd: I’ve earned badges for running certain distances; the quality of my running didn’t matter. I’ve earned badges for trying new exercises; whether I did them correctly, well, or even repeatedly didn’t matter. I’ve even earned badges for engagement: I commented on other people’s profiles and got a badge. The quality or helpfulness of my comments didn’t matter. But some Fitocracy badges are more complex. I’ve earned badges for particular combinations of exercises, showing I can do a kind of full-body workout in one session. These badges can motivate people to round out their routines. Again, whether I used good form or even did the exercise correctly didn’t apply. That I made the attempt was good enough. I’ve also earned badges for running certain distances at certain speeds. These come closer to assessing quality, since a 10-minute mile is certainly better than a 12-minute mile for a runner. But what if I’m using bad form? I could injure myself by trying to run faster without proper support. These badges still only note whether something was done or not. If I hit 10:00/mi, I did it. If it took 10:01/mi, I did not.

Now think of a writing classroom. What can we badge there? What can be done or not done, versus done well or done poorly? Can writing earn badges? How can we determine whether writing goals are met?
I have struggled with these questions of assessment for some time now. Taking inspiration from an article by Cheryl Ball, I now withhold actual grading until the end-of-semester portfolio, relying exclusively on formative feedback (without an attached summary grade) with student work. Because we have several assignments to work through for the semester, and because freshmen often don’t have sophisticated sensitivities to writing quality, I still track whether they have successfully completed their smaller assignments as they work toward their portfolios. I mark their work “Complete” once it meets the basic requirements of the assignment—in essence, once their work passes muster.

That mark of completion is a badge under a different name. By giving students marks of “Complete”, I am awarding them for meeting minimum expectations, and the emphasis of their efforts have been focused on meeting those minimums. They pay more attention to my feedback than they used to when I would assign letter grades for individual assignments, but now they worry about changing red marks to green marks. My goal with this assessment system was to have students focus on constant improvement, rather than letter grades. That much has worked. My students have revised their work more this semester than I’ve ever seen before. But rather than seeing quality as the motivator, I see completion as the motivator. My students aim to be finished, not to be great.

With a badge-based classroom, the same problem would be overarching and systemic: students would devote their efforts to completing tasks at the lowest level of acceptability, rather than completing tasks to the best of their ability. The traditional A-through-F grading scale is very limited and one-dimensional, reducing a complex system to a single letter that allegedly represents some judgement about quality and success. As far as assessment goes, badges are not even one-dimensional. They are binary. Something was done or it wasn’t; we don’t know how well it was done. Binary assessments are inappropriate in writing classrooms that hold quality as a standard. Badges cannot work in composition, and the mentality behind them is corrosive for the mindset we demand of competent writers. If we want students to successfully manage their own writing and to understand how to write appropriately for different situations, we have to use assessment methods that encourage reflection, measures of quality, and multi-dimensional feedback.

Let’s leave the badges for the IF department. And, of course, for beer.

[“badge” photo by Patrick Brosset on Flickr; licensed CC BY-NC 2.0. Ostrich badge courtesy Kelvin Thompson.]