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Untold Play

Points, badges and achievements in learning: easy to reach for, challenging to master

Points, badges and achievements in learning: easy to reach for, challenging to master

by Terry Pearce

4 months ago


The idea of points and achievements is a simple one. It’s easy to imagine spicing up any kind of learning activity, and adding motivation, by adding points, ‘badges’ and leaderboards. But because it’s so simple, it’s very easy to get wrong.

The easiest way to get it wrong is to spend a minimum of care and thought in structuring your points, badges and leaderboards. Careful design will be a multiplier on the effectiveness of any scheme. 

There are a few key things you can focus on to make sure your points, badges and leaderboards encourage learning and motivate learners.

Make sure your learners really value what you award

The most useful way to think about points, badges and leaderboards is that they’re there to motivate specific actions. But they’ll only motivate people to take action if they value the reward. We’ve all heard of employee-of-the-month awards that people competed not to get, because their photo on the wall was seen as an anti-prize.

I have an article here if you’re interested in how to make things players of learning games value the right things, but here are the key takeaways, adapted for any kind of playful, games-based or gamified learning:

  • Use co-creation: get learners to help create the points and awards system
  • Use story and theme: link points and awards to a story or theme
  • Use scarcity: give some things limited availability
  • Use mystery: make points and awards not fully clear until they’re won
  • Use collection: make a set of awards that learners will want to complete

There are plenty of other ways, but you won’t go far wrong starting with these five.

Think carefully about what actions you want to motivate

As well as making the whole thing motivating, think about what exactly you want learners to do, and target your points and awards at these actions. Do you just want them to finish pieces of work? Or do you want more specific actions?

Do you want them to collaborate? Then target that, maybe with points bonuses for things done with others. Do you want them to try out new things? Reward it when they do, and make sure there are fewer penalties for failing. Do you want them to be creative? Award points for innovation.

And remember, a structure they can see in advance can motivate action more. Sure, if they get creative and get surprise points for it, they might do it again. But if they know from the start what will gain points, they can build it into what they do (and it can feel less arbitrary).

Look out for demotivating factors

A leaderboard can seem like a great motivator. But in practice, when they’re implemented thoughtlessly, they don’t work. Those not in the running for top spot quickly start to see things as pointless. And not everyone enjoys competition (more on that here and here).

You can address this, though. More than one leaderboard can mean everyone can be in the running somewhere. You could have different kinds of points awarded for different things, with different leaderboards. Or have leaderboards for ‘most improved’, or ‘biggest single score’, etc. 

At the very least, consider resetting leaderboards often, to give everyone a chance to start with a clean slate. Or provide some sort of catch-up mechanism, so that those behind the lead can more easily earn points.

This is just one example. Think about (or test) how your system and structure for points, awards and leaderboards works in practice. Is there any situation where players give up? Are any types of players insufficiently motivated? What could you tweak?

Learn from great implementation in the real world

Some creators have come up with great systems in just this way: they tried things out, kept what worked, and ditched what didn’t. Iterate like this enough times, and you have a mature, road-tested system of awards that motivate.

With the caveat that your situation is different, you should take advantage of what they’ve found to work, rather than having to go through the pain of iterating and evolving like they did. Here’s three examples of points and awards working well.

1. Audible have a great range of badges

Audible isn’t exactly a learning app, but some of the things they want users to do have their parallel in learning situations. And the badge system is very well thought-out. They award badges for a range of things: reading a book in one go, reading at the weekend, reading a very long book, reading a book twice…

There’s a list here of all the badges if you want to look deeper. The naming system is great, too – right on theme for a ‘reading’-based experience.

2. Duolingo has some motivating things to progress towards

The language learning app Duolingo has categories of achievement, with ‘milestone’ badges showing progress. So, one category, ‘wildfire’, focuses on the learner’s ‘streak’ (number of days of consecutive learning). There are three levels to the badge: the one-star version at 3 days, the two-star at 7 days, and the three-star at 30 days.

This helps learners feel that they’re on a progress track. if they get the one-star version (easy), they want to progress and get the three-star version (harder). the two-star provides a ‘waystation’ for a good feeling partway there.

Their leaderboards also have some interesting innovations, with leagues being tiered, and promotion and relegation. This allows people to find their level, the level where they can compete effectively.

For more detail on creating more involved, complex motivational systems for points and achievements (among other things), Yu-Kai Chou’s book ‘Actionable Gamification’ is fantastic.

3. Lee Sheldon’s Multiplayer Classroom structures learning around progress

Lee Sheldon, for his college classes, wanted to move away from the traditional exam-based system. So he created a points structure that started students at an ‘F’ (zero points), and asked them to work steadily through the semester to achieve points and improve their grade. If they got enough points, they earned an ‘A’.

It transformed his classes, away from a focus on cramming for exams and assignments to gradual, open learning at all times. You can find out more here

It’s the classic model for making ongoing courses more gamelike, and while it has some fantasy trappings that may not be appropriate for every setting, the core mechanics are theme-independent and could be used anywhere that ongoing learning happens over a period of time.