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5 tips for creating a credible badging program

By Brad Flickinger
July 12, 2016
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If you ask a student to explain why she got an A in a class, you might get one of the following answers: Because I did all my work. Because I’m good at math. Because I work hard. Because the teacher likes me. Because I always come to class and pay attention. Because it’s easy. Or, the ever-popular, I don’t know.

On the contrary, ask a student why he got a poor grade, and you’ll often hear the opposite: Because I didn’t turn in my work. Because I suck at math. Because my teacher hates me. Because I missed too much class. Because it’s hard, and I don’t get it. Because I’m stupid. And I don’t know works for this side, too.

When the student, teacher and possibly the parents are the only ones who see a student’s work — and when the student and parents see only that one student’s work — the process can seem rather mysterious. It’s not surprising that accusations of unfair grading or favoritism might arise.

Open badging system promotes transparency

In an open badge system, where students must meet specific criteria before they can earn a badge, the definition of success is clear-cut and the evidence is plainly visible. The thought of parents comparing students’ work side by side might initially sound terrifying if you are accustomed to traditional grading (How come my son lost three points for neatness when this student didn’t lose any? His is just as neat!). But with digital portfolios or linked badges, a different type of comparison arises: Students understand expectations and they know they’ll be rewarded for excellence.

The open aspect of badging helps students (and parents) understand why they did or didn’t earn a badge and fosters a learning community where students pursue shared goals. Students seeking to earn a certain badge can find several examples of success, and students who have earned badges can become a resource to others. Though it takes a shift in mindset, opening up the badge system benefits students, teachers and parents.

Consistent assessment is crucial

Of course, just initiating a badge system doesn’t magically erase any threat of questioning, misunderstanding or second-guessing. A good badging program needs one or more trusted assessors to keep the badges credible. Follow these five tips to earn and keep trust when assessing badges:

  1. Focus on competencies. Remember that skills are the heart of a badge program and the checklist of requirements needs to reflect that. Stick to the checklist faithfully.
  2. Give high-quality feedback. If a student’s work does not meet the requirements and her work is being returned for improvement, this is one of the best learning opportunities in the process! The assessor now has the opportunity to help students understand what skills need improvement. Don’t just return a checklist with one or more items unchecked. Include written feedback or ask the student to meet with you to discuss improvements.
  3. Maintain high standards. Badges lose their meaning if they are too easy to get. Don’t succumb to the temptation to be too nice or award a badge simply because a student was trying hard. If you do, you will gradually devalue badges for all  students.
  4. Be consistent. In the standards you hold, the feedback you give and even the timeline of your response, try to maintain as much consistency as possible. Students will compare their work to that of others and to their own past work.
  5. Allow discussion. In the spirit of helping students take charge of their learning, allow students the opportunity to question your assessment. In the past, I’ve missed components that students pointed out. It’s OK to admit a mistake. You don’t have to be infallible to be trustworthy.

Brad Flickinger, author of Reward Learning with Badges: Spark Student Achievement, is a self-proclaimed geek and maker who puts his affinity for technology to work as a technology director and technology teacher. His students have produced the longest running and most popular student podcast on iTunes and have created movies with over 200,000 online views.

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