Teaching and Learning

Gamifying Your Classroom Makes Learning a Serious Business

How you can use digital badges to engage your students in gamified learning activities that help scaffold and differentiate learning while reinforcing and celebrating a growth mindset.

Jonathan Kelley

July 31, 2020

The fall has long been my favorite time of year even before it was dominated by pumpkin spice everything. I enjoy the crispness of the air, the turning of the leaves on trees, and breaking out my killer flannel ensemble.

Unfortunately, the fall brings one item that I despise, raking leaves!

Our house is located in a quiet neighborhood that is sprinkled with mature trees that give us pleasant shade in the summer. The trade-off is hours being spent cleaning up after them in the fall. The trees become somewhat like a puppy you never asked for.

I used to despise this chore until a few years ago when something amazing happened. There I was, raking up the little devils into nice, orderly piles when suddenly I heard the sound of rustling leaves. As I followed the stray leaves back to their origin, I was surprised to find my two toddlers eagerly jumping in and out of the piles I so carefully constructed.

I must admit, this experience completely changed my mindset about the task that I had grown to lament. This dreaded, annual responsibility was now given a new purpose, full of fun and feedback. Soon, I gladly began to rake leaves so I can hear the laughter and see my kids light up with joy.

We experimented with different size piles and made obstacle-like courses in our yard for the boys to use. At the end of the day filled with hard-core leaf jumping, my wife, two sons, and I would scoop the leaves into bags. Thanks to a change in mindset, a cumbersome chore has become an annual tradition and a treasured memory that I now look forward to.

As educators, we know how powerful a mindset can be. Engaging young minds in your classroom is a formidable challenge that is full of rewards. The hard part is identifying how to actually conduct engaging activities.

Can I tell you a secret? Kids like having fun.

Do you want to know another thing? Teachers like having fun too!

What if I told you there was a way to make learning fun? Yes, you can have fun and learn at the same time. My kids had fun playing with the leaves while also learning how to rake and bag them. As we raked up the piles, my children were able to demonstrate the ability to be patient (which they are still working on), all while having fun.

Educators should keep in mind what Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith stated (2015), in their book Most Likely to Succeed,

“Just because students may be having fun at school shouldn’t cause us to conclude that they’re not learning. It is, in fact, possible for students to experience real joy while learning in a way that reinforces - not comes at the expense of - developing critical skills.” (p. 48).

Getting Started with Digital Badges

What if you could design your course around engaging activities for your students that align with their passions? One which prioritizes the school experience around developing critical skills, and prepares them for careers, citizenship, and life? Well, now you can through the wondrous world of badging, aka micro-credentialing.

Badging is a practice that has been taking place for quite some time. For example, in recent history, many fitness apps have utilized badges as a motivational factor to its consumers. I must say that it does feel good to get a badge after reaching a new step milestone.

Consider the Seven Survival Skills

The Boy Scouts of America often come to mind as well for badging scouts once they have provided evidence of demonstrating a survival skill. What if educators did the same thing?

What if students were awarded badges as they progressed through what Wagner and Dintersmith (2015) identified as the “Seven Survival Skills?”

  1. Critical thinking and problem solving
  2. Collaboration across networks and leading by example
  3. Agility and adaptability
  4. Initiative and entrepreneurship
  5. Effective oral, written, and multimedia communication
  6. Accessing and analyzing information
  7. Curiosity and imagination

Instructional Implementation Examples

Badge/Grade Equivalency

What if the overall grade in the course was based on the number of badges a student earned? What would that look like? How would this impact student motivation? A grade should reflect the rate at which a student is growing as a learner. What if we could use badges to capture that growth that provides the student with evidence of just how great of a student they are?

Weekly Badge Objectives

Providing students with a tiered scale and posting it in your room is a great way to be transparent with your expectations. For example, if a student earned 1 badge during the week, that is awesome! They grew as a learner and their grade should reflect that. How can I fail a student who just showed me that they grew and achieved something? However, is earning one badge enough to say they dominated the class? Of course not!

When creating badges, I would often aim to have a badge reflect 30 minutes of focused, in classwork. I taught 48 min periods, so that bought me about 18 mins to share announcements, conduct demonstrations, or allow for a random fire drill or other schedule interruptions.

As a result, my weekly objective would look something like this.

Students who earned a badge every day would have an A. Students who went above and beyond would have an A+. This was possible as I would publish material to allow students to work ahead.


Can we take a moment and be honest with ourselves? Testing students, in the traditional sense, is lame and not fun. Many students suffer test anxiety and make silly mistakes while others spend zero time preparing for them. Teachers are then forced to spend hours of their lives grading and analyzing data that most likely is not a great reflection of the students’ knowledge. What if I told you there was a better way, one that was actually fun for the students?

Goal Master Badge

Have you ever had a student work incredibly hard during a unit only to earn something like a 55% on the summative assessment? Of course you have! Let’s then take it a step further and say the student scored a 0% on the pre-assessment for the unit. This student grew a tremendous amount and, at the end of the day, they are going to get an F?!?

Meanwhile, another student scores 85% after scoring 80% on the pre-assessment. This kid barely grew as a learner, yet they are going to score a B? This does not fly in a gamified classroom!

What if students were given a goal to reach instead of an arbitrary and outdated grading scale? What if students worked with you, the teacher, to develop the goal as well as devise a plan on how they were going to get there as well as identify any obstacles that might get in their way?

That is what students could do to earn the Goal Master Badge.

Before taking the summative assessment, students look back at the pre-assessment which would cover the same material as the summative. Their goal could be to reduce the number they missed by half. For example, the student who scored 0% on the pre-assessment would now have a goal of 50%. Before taking the assessment, the student would complete a goal survey where they would record the numerical score they would need as well as answer questions on how they would prepare themselves for success such as getting a good night’s sleep beforehand, completing a study guide, asking clarifying questions. The student would also think about their current circumstances and share anything that might interfere with them being successful at reaching their goals.

This could be about the content of the class or circumstances of life. For example, the student might share that they have a softball tournament out of state over the weekend and are worried that finding the time to study will be too big of a challenge to overcome and they may be a little extra tired on Monday. What if you could work with the student to devise the plan where the student could be given an extra day to study in class on Monday and take the test on Tuesday?

You then could reach out to the family of the student to let them know of the plan, so they know their student is being supported.


Since the student scored more than 50%, they would earn the Goal Master Badge which would result in raising their grade. The student who scored 85% on the summative assessment would not earn the Goal Master Badge as they fell a little short. All is not lost though, as they could be given a chance to retake the test after spending a bit more time interacting with the content and working with the teacher.

Pro-Level and All-Star Badges

How do you reward students who crushed their goal? Well, providing them with a chance to earn multiple badges with a single activity. Students who met their goal could earn the Pro Level badge if they scored higher than 80% and they could earn a third badge if they scored more than 90% which would give them the All-Star badge for the unit. That is 3 badges for one test. Students would often come to class excited to showcase their new skill set while having the opportunity to climb the leaderboard and boost their grade.

A basic handout illustrating digital badge equivalency

Download a copy of this handout

Wall of Famer

Many students enjoy being recognized. Why not capture this and use it in your classroom? What if you gave them a chance to become an “All-Pro” for each unit. This would require students to go above and beyond the normal expectations of the class. This could include not only reaching their goal on the test, but also demonstrating the highest level of Bloom’s Taxonomy by creating something.

For example, what if the students created a poster demonstrating how a cell is similar to different characters of the Simpsons. For example, the mayor runs the city like the nucleus runs the cell. Or a student demonstrates mastery of identifying different energy transformations when they create a Rube Goldberg Machine that they share with the class. After earning so many All-pro badges, the student’s name would then be “enshrined” on a poster in the classroom where others could see for years to come.

If you are interested in creating an engaging environment where students develop articles of evidence as they demonstrate mastery of important life skills, give badging a try. Students enjoy the rush when earning badges as they move up the leaderboards. Students will have so much fun applying their newly acquired skills and knowledge that they won’t even realize they are learning. After all, playing is a serious business for a child.

“Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning. They have to play with what they know to be true in order to find out more, and then they can use what they learn in new forms of play.” – Fred Rogers (DeWitt, 2013).


Header Photo by Bronwyn on Unsplash