What One Summer of Youth Told Us About Badges and Motivation: Internal versus External Validation

The badges kept me focused on what I wanted to accomplish in my research.” — Youth Survey Respondent

“The effort that is used to get something most people have never heard of is silly.” — Youth Survey Respondent

All CD

Since early 2013, the American Museum of Natural History has been revisiting and exploring the benefits of incorporating a digital badging system into select youth-serving after-school programs. In summer 2013, 131 badges were conferred (out of 155 reviewed requests) to 72 youth amongst a pool of 38 different badges across seven programs.

Throughout the prototype, we were particularly interested in learning more about the effect on the youth participating across our programs. How did they experience the badges? What motivated them to use (or avoid) the system? What affect (positive or negative) did they feel it had on their learning?

So we asked.

All Lang

We surveyed youth but separated them into two groups: those who requested and received badges and those who never requested badges (those who requested but did not receive badges were too small to be significant). Not all youth in all programs responded, so the results should be viewed not as definitive but suggestive.

Overall, the youth were equally split regarding their sense of whether the badges had any impact on them and their learning. Of those who reported the badges having an effect, the effect was overwhelming positive. In short, around half of all survey respondents found that badges had a slightly or very positive effect on:

    • their enjoyment of the program
    • their motivation to learn
    • their understanding of what they were actually learning
    • facilitating a feedback process on what they were learning between them and the facilitators
    • their ability describe in words what they were learning
    • their ability to direct their learning trajectory
    • their identify as science learners

Those are strong preliminary findings. The question remains, however: what motivated youth to participate in the first place?

Of the 38 who responded that they had received a badge, just around half were motivated because they were instructed to, they enjoyed it, and/or they had completed the required work. A quarter responded that they were motivated because pursuing or earning badges made them feel good, they liked to collect things, and that the badging process itself was inherently motivating. The reasons less often mentioned were an interest in sharing them with others, whether for personal reasons or for self-promotion. So, in general, one way to understand this is that the badging system offered motivating value to the youth at a personal (the activity felt good) or programmatic level (it connected with their work in a positive way) but not at a peer level (it was not for reasons of competition or social capital) or world-wide level (it was not to advance their education or career within our outside the museum).

So amongst those who chose not to pursue badges, what motivated them to stay away from the initiative? Of the 21 who responded, half agreed with the statement “What was the point?” The second and third most common reason to NOT pursue badges both addressed the same point: the badges weren’t something they could use to demonstrate their work to others outside the Museum.

In other words, comparing motivation between those who pursued and those who avoided badges, something interesting is suggested: those motivated by personal or programmatic reasons valued, enjoyed and pursued badges while those motivated by peer or world-wide reasons devalued, disliked and did not pursue badges.

That distinction is something all badge systems must address: will learners value badges due to what they afford WITHIN the current learning environment or because it offers a form of currency OUTSIDE the learning environment? And how will a badge system’s design reflect the intended balance between the two?

Our youth, that summer, helped us to see how, at the end of the day, both groups of youth could tell what the badging system offered and whether it aligned with their own personal learning goals. Then they voted with their feet.

The final report offers further details on how the badges were designed and administered, and the key observations we took from the educator and youth surveys. (download report here)

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