Badges and recognizing success

Badges can be offered at the university level to students that demonstrate achievement in a particular area.  Unlike certificates or degrees, these are not official credentials that require accreditation, but an informal way of documenting skills that can still be noted on a resume, included in a portfolio, or even noted in an official transcript. Universities have been using badges for years, and there are plenty of articles out there on ways to do this. In a 2016 survey of 190 institutions, 1 in 5 was found to use digital badges.

I’m more interested in badges at the classroom level.  I like the idea of breaking up a course into measurable skills and knowledge with clear criteria for what learning in that area means, and the earning of a ‘badge’ as evidence for the learning. Traditionally, the only concrete measure students get of learning is a grade.  But exams and papers and other assignments are often testing multiple things at once–a variety of areas of knowledge, critical thinking, written communication, etc.  So if a student gets a B on an exam, they may not process what that means–its an overall measure, or an index, of scores on a  variety of things.  So how much does a student take away from getting a B on a paper or exam? 

There are of course ways around this. We can use rubrics for essays which clearly indicate the areas of strength and weakness–although that means actually using the breakdown in the rubric meaningfully, and not doing as some do–deciding holistically on a grade, and then assigning points to meet that holistic grade.  On exams, we could organize sections or questions by topic area–but that assumes that each question covers a single topic or skill, which of course may not be the case.

Specifications style grading can help here, as in that system, all assignments are graded pass fail, with a pass meaning achievement of a set learning outcome (not a C or D), and with each assignment having clear ‘specifications’ that indicate what achievement looks like.  This can force us to be really clear about the goals of any assignment, and you can bundle assignments together to show achievement of broader course learning outcomes.  Then you could give a badge to the student who earns passing marks on that bundle of assignments.  When tied to grades, you could then say that you have to earn X number of badges to earn a particular grade in the class.  A high grade in the class, then, is about demonstrating learning on a particular set of knowledge areas or skills, with clear markers (and recognition) for that achievement.

I think an approach like this can work in a lot of classes.  In American politics, I could decide what the measurable markers are of knowledge of, say, Congress, or more broadly, political institutions of national government.  I could indicate introductory, intermediate, and advanced levels of knowledge (learning outcomes) in that area. To pass my class, students would have to earn at least the introductory level badge in Congress, but those that earn higher badges would be on track to earn higher grades in the course. 

In research methods, this is easier because its a course that lends itself to division in this way.  I could give badges for demonstrating understanding of reliability, hypothesis writing, and interpreting a regression table. 

This is a very different way to approach classroom teaching than we are typically trained to do, which is to teach content and then assess broad understanding of that content.  But the more i read about transparent teaching, specifications grading, badges, and other innovations in higher education, the more I become convinced that there is a better way to motivate, recognize, and credential learning.

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