A Neurologist Makes the Case for the Video Game Model as a Learning Tool | Edutopia
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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

The popularity of video games is not the enemy of education, but rather a model for best teaching strategies. Games insert players at their achievable challenge level and reward player effort and practice with acknowledgement of incremental goal progress, not just final product. The fuel for this process is the pleasure experience related to the release of dopamine.

Dopamine Motivation

The human brain, much like that of most mammals, has hardwired physiological responses that had survival value at some point in evolutionary progression. The dopamine-reward system is fueled by the brain's recognition of making a successful prediction, choice, or behavioral response.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that, when released in higher than usual amounts, goes beyond the synapse and flows to other regions of the brain producing a powerful pleasure response. This is a deep satisfaction, such as quenching a long thirst. After making a prediction, choice, or action, and receiving feedback that it was correct, the reward from the release of dopamine prompts the brain seek future opportunities to repeat the action. For animal survival, this promotes life or species-sustaining choices and behaviors, such as following a new scent that leads to a mate or a meal and remembering that scent the next time it is present.

No Pain, No Gain

The survival benefit of the dopamine-reward system is building skills and adaptive responses. The system is only activated and available to promote, sustain, or repeat some mental or physical effort when the outcome is not assured. If there is no risk, there is no reward. If there is no challenge, such as adding single digit numbers by a student who has achieved mastery in adding double-digit numbers, there is activation of the dopamine-reward network.

In humans, the dopamine reward response that promotes pleasure and motivation also requires that they are aware that they solved a problem, figured out a puzzle, correctly answered a challenging question, or achieved the sequence of movements needed to play a song on the piano or swing a baseball bat to hit a home run. This is why students need to use what they learn in authentic ways that allow them to recognize their progress as clearly as they see it when playing video games.

Awareness of Incremental Goal Progress

In a sequential, multilevel video game, feedback of progress is often ongoing, such as accumulating points, visual tokens, or celebratory sound effects, but the real jolt of dopamine reward is in response to the player achieving the challenge, solution, sequence, etc. needed to progress to the next and more challenging level of the game. When the brain receives that feedback that this progress has been made, it reinforces the networks used to succeed. Through a feedback system, that neuronal circuit becomes stronger and more durable. In other words, memory of the mental or physical response used to achieve the dopamine reward is reinforced.

It may seem counter intuitive to think that children would consider harder work a reward for doing well on a homework problem, test, or physical skill to which they devoted considerable physical or mental energy. Yet, that is just what the video playing brain seeks after experiencing the pleasure of reaching a higher level in the game. A computer game doesn't hand out cash, toys, or even hugs. The motivation to persevere is the brain seeking another surge of dopamine -- the fuel of intrinsic reinforcement.

Individualized Achievable Challenge

Individualized achievable challenge level is one where a task, action, or choice is not so easy as to be essentially automatic or 100% successful. When that is the case the brain is not alert for feedback and there is no activation of the dopamine reward response system. The task must also not be perceived as so difficult that there is no chance of success. It is only when the brain perceives a reasonable possibility of success for achieving a desirable goal that it invests the energy and activates the dopamine reward circuit.

fMRI and cognitive studies reveal that the brain "evaluates" the probability of effort resulting in success before expending the cognitive effort in solving mental problems. If the challenge seems too high, or students have a fixed mindset related past failures that they will not succeed in a subject or topic, the brain is not likely to expend the effort needed to achieve the challenge.

Brain effort is costly because this three-pound organ needs 20% of the body's supply of oxygen and glucose to keep its cells alive. The brain operates to conserve its resources unless the energy cost is low or the expectation of reward is high. In the classroom, that is the ideal level of instructional challenge for student motivation.

When learners have opportunities to participate in learning challenges at their individualized achievable challenge level, their brains invest more effort to the task and are more responsive to feedback. Students working toward clear, desirable goals within their range of perceived achievable challenge, reach levels of engagement much like the focus and perseverance we see when they play their video games.

Feedback or scaffolding may be needed to support students' perception that the challenge is achievable, but the levels of mastery are rarely the same for every student in the class. This is when we need to provide opportunities for differentiating and individualizing. These interventions range from clearly scaled rubrics, to small flexible groups for "as needed" support, or collaborative groups through which students can "enter" from their strengths. Descriptions of these strategies, beyond the scope of this article, are found in differentiated instruction literature.

Game Entry Point is a Perfect Fit Through Pre-assessment and Feedback

The best on-line learning programs for building students' missing foundational knowledge use student responses to structure learning at individualized achievable challenge levels. These programs also provide timely corrective and progress-acknowledging feedback that allows the students to correct mistakes, build understanding progressively, and recognize their incremental progress.

The classroom model can follow suit. Video games with levels of play allow the player to progress quickly through early levels if the gamer already has the skill needed. Gamers reportedly make errors 80% of the time, but the most compelling games give hints, cues, and other feedback so players' brains have enough expectation of dopamine reward to persevere. The games require practice for the specific skills the player needs to master, without the off-putting requirement to repeat tasks already mastered. This type of game keeps the brain engaged because the dopamine surge is perceived to be within reach if effort and practice are sustained.

Good games give players opportunities for experiencing intrinsic reward at frequent intervals, when they apply the effort and practice the specific skills they need to get to the next level. The games do not require mastery of all tasks and the completion of the whole game before giving the brain the feedback for dopamine boosts of satisfaction. The dopamine release comes each time the game provides feedback that the player's actions or responses are correct. The player gains points or tokens for small incremental progress and ultimately the powerful feedback of the success of progressing to the next level. This is when players seek "harder work". To keep the pleasure of intrinsic satisfaction going, the brain needs a higher level of challenge, because staying at a level once mastery is achieved doesn't release the dopamine.

Bringing Incremental Progress Recognition to the Classroom... and Beyond

In the classroom, the video model can be achieved with timely, corrective feedback so students recognize incorrect foundational knowledge and then have opportunities to strengthen the correct new memory circuits through practice and application. However, individualized instruction, assignments, and feedback, that allow students to consistently work at their individualized achievable challenge levels, are time-consuming processes not possible for teachers to consistently provide all students.

What we can do is be aware of the reason the brain is so responsive to video game play and keep achievable challenge and incremental progress feedback in mind when planning units of instruction. One way to help each student sustain motivation and effort is to shift progress recognition to students themselves. This can be done by having students use a variety of methods of recording their own progress toward individualized goals. Through brief conferences, goals can be mutually agreed upon, such as number of pages read a week (with comprehension accountability), progression to the next level of the multiplication tables, or achievement of a higher level on a rubric for writing an essay. Free bar graphs downloaded from the Internet can be filled in by students as they record and see evidence of their incremental goal progress. In contrast to the system of recognition delayed until a final product is completed, graphing reveals the incremental progress evidence throughout the learning process. I've found that for students who have lost confidence to the point of not wanting to risk more failure, it is helpful to start the effort-to-progress record keeping and graphing with something they enjoy, such as shooting foul shots or computer keyboarding speed and accuracy.

Immediate Gratification or Long-term Goal Pursuit?

Compared to an adult brain, a young brain needs more frequent dopamine boosts to sustain effort, persevere through challenges and setbacks, and build the trait of resilience. The brain's prefrontal cortex, with its executive functions (judgment, analysis, delay of immediate gratification, prioritizing, planning, etc.) will be the subject of a future blog. In relation to the video game model, it is important to plan instruction keeping in mind that the executive function circuits are late to mature - well into the twenties. The visible evidence seen on their graphs or rubric progress evidence helps students develop the concept that effort toward a goal brings progress. This, in turn, builds their capacity to resist their young brain's strong drive for immediate gratification. As students use visible models to recognize their incremental goal progress, they build the executive function of goal-directed behavior.

Classroom instruction that provides opportunities for incremental progress feedback at students' achievable challenge levels pays off with increased focus, resilience, and willingness to revise and persevere toward achievement of goals. The development of students' awareness of their potentials to achieve success, through effort and response to feedback, extends far beyond the classroom walls. Your application of the video game model to instruction encourages the habits of mind through which your students can achieve their highest academic, social, and emotional potentials.


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guadalupe's picture

This blog is great because for those people that think that video games are just bad and that they do not have any positive affect on children's mind. My personal opinion was the same that video games were bad, but now as I keep to study to be a teacher that this can keep a child motivated and can help them to reach a goal. I liked the way that it only gave information about only how the dopamine and that it tied well, in the future I would like to see what other positive affects of video games are there.

Lakeshia Maberry's picture

I think that this article is great in helping parents and educators understand and appreciate games and the effects that they have upon the brain. I belive that technology can be great when used in the right context and moderation. I encourage my children to play video games and educational games on the computer. Once again., great article.

Ms.Cindy Reyes's picture

I both read the blog and watched the video and have to say it was truly insightful. Taking strategies that are used in a video game to stimulate learning in a real live classroom is an innovative approach to expanding and enhancing the students' school experience. I believe the target is to work within a student's zone of proximal development as defined by Vygotsky through i+1 strategies as defined by Krashen. The challenge is to provide meaningful stimulus to get students to maintain progression through the next level, and I believe you gave us plenty of examples of how to use just that. Students do not necessarily need tangible rewards, but meaningful rewards that encourage and praise their achievements and drive them to continue pushing forward. I, too, am a student at UTA and appreciate all of the information provided by my instructor and the resources she has led me to. They will no doubt come in handy throughout my teaching career: especially year one!

Rubi's picture

I agree that model games are a great way to teach children. Children enjoy playing games, they can be rewarding by earning points and powers and they are fun and educationl. Though it is important for the teacher and the parent to have the children play a game in moderation. Thank you for the article.

Judy Willis MD's picture
Judy Willis MD
Neurologist/Teacher/Grad School Ed faculty/Author

Judy Willis Response to Blog Comments from UTA Teacher Ed Program

During the last weeks of October there were over 20 new responses to my edutopia blog of April 14, 2011, A Neurologist Makes the Case for the Video Game Model as a Learning Tool. I learned that most of these were from students in the University of Texas at Arlington College of Education as part of an assignment to read and respond to this blog. I would like to acknowledgment of value and success of the assignment with examples of their blogs and recommend it a both a teaching tool and an example of the benefits of including the neuroscience of learning in teacher education.

My Response to The Blog Assignment
This assignment of blog reading and responding models a strong teaching tool and the value of knowledge gained about the neuroscience of learning. I will address both the blog tool and the neuroscience message here.
I also take this opportunity to honor the university professors who are guiding these future teachers at University of Texas at Arlington College of Education and the likeminded professors doing similar work in schools of education in the US and internationally.

The Blog Topic
The topic of these blog these graduate students read is the about the neuro-logical components of the video game MODEL and how the things that make video games so engaging can be applied to classroom instruction. The more we learn about how successful tools of brain engagement and motivation work, the more we can extend and adapt the components to classroom teaching.
For example, we've learned that intrinsic motivation results when a powerful dopamine-fueled system is activated by feedback about incremental goal progress. Interventions, such as those learned from the design of compelling video games applied to classroom teaching, can transform negativity into motivation.
In the most compelling video games, the activation of the intrinsic reward system is most successful when players are playing at levels that are challenging but perceived as achievable with practice. Similarly, students learning at their individualized levels of achievable challenges, who receive frequent feedback about the challenges they've achieved on route to the goal, are motivated by intrinsic pleasure to persevere through greater challenge.

Blog Reading and Responses as a Learning Tool
The use of blog reading and responding, demonstrated in this teacher education assignment, models the powerful brain-research correlated strategy these future teachers now in their toolkits. Blog reading and writing by students at all levels of education (with age-appropriate access and supervision), is for an example of a neuro-logical tool that builds understanding through active, relevant, participatory learning.
The assignment has the buy-in of personal relevance to increase learner engagement, understanding, and motivation. The blog reading had relevance because the assignment was to consider uses of the information for their own future teaching. This is an example of a transfer task where the learner applies the new information in personally valued ways.
Through the assignment, these future teachers developed foundational background of the neuroscience research correlations to video game model. Because they were engaged in building their own understanding, it will endure as they continue to apply this neuroscience to their future teaching.

Samples of the Future Teacher Blogs Responses
The blogs are very well informed and thoughtful responses reflecting the background knowledge gained in neuroscience. Also evidenced in the blogs is the open-minded and responsible awareness these future teachers are developing about the potential of neuroscience research to guide educational interventions. Their responses are emblematic of the enthusiasm that results from recognizing the increased opportunities for successful and creative teaching that accompany this background knowledge
Here are just four of the many insightful blog responses, followed by my reflection on the importance of what these future teachers are learning.

Video Games as a Model not a substitution
I both read the blog and watched the video and have to say they were truly insightful. Taking strategies that are used in a video game to stimulate learning in a real live classroom is an innovative approach to expanding and enhancing the students' school experience. I believe the target is to work within a student's zone of proximal development as defined by Vygotsky through i+1 strategies as defined by Krashen.
The challenge is to provide meaningful stimulus to get students to maintain progression through the next level, and I believe you gave us plenty of examples of how to use just that. Students do not necessarily need tangible rewards, but meaningful rewards that encourage and praise their achievements and drive them to continue pushing forward.
I, too, am a student at UTA and appreciate all of the information provided by my instructor and the resources she has led me to. They will no doubt come in handy throughout my teaching career: especially year one!
Ms.Cindy Reyes
Posted on 10/28/2012 3:58am

Student becoming at Teacher- University of Texas at Arlington
I think the idea of understanding what motivates, and what does not motivate a student to participate in class is key. Obviously, we do not want to encourage learning through enhanced addiction to dopamine responses, but rather keep the students challenged and engaged in learning at all times.
To me, this blog isn't specifically endorsing video games as an instructional resource, but rather following the model of why video games are so attractive to youth. Above all, when lessons are developmentally appropriate, challenging and fun students would be more likely to be engaged in the lesson. In that case, more learning would take place.
I agree with that design and plan to employ it in my own classroom one day. Thank you so much for sharing your research and findings!
Posted on 10/24/2012 1:54pm

Education student
This blog was very insightful. Before reading it I never really thought about why children are so attracted to video games. I always thought it was because of the appeal of technology. I now understand the "rewards" systems that go on in a child's mind when they play a video game and conquer different levels.
After reading this article I would like to implement the same effect in my classroom. I want my students to feel challenged and accomplished when learning.
April Sanichanh
Posted on 10/25/2012 3:03am

UTA STUDENT This blog was
There were some great ideas for teachers to implement classroom success. I found that when children see their own process they are more apt to doing their best and wanted to succeed. When children are playing and continuously losing they are going to shut down and want to give up. They are more willing to not try because of failure then to attempt the task again.
Allowing students to tract their own success in the classroom is a great way to encourage kids to do their best. Along with tracking their success I think that allowing them to set goals at their level of learning is a way to motivate them as well.
Future Teacher. Student in Education Program at UTA
Posted on 10/24/2012 5:30pm

Teachers with Neuroscience Background can Best Serve their Future Students

This assignment and the blog responses reflect the value of future teacher understanding the neuroscience of learning. Every class, assignment, and experience shapes the brain.

Understanding how the brain processes information into learning, what students' brains need to learn successfully, how and why successful strategies work, are powerful tools that accompany this neuroscience knowledge.

Students are the beneficiaries of the ongoing bridging of neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and education. Teachers who understand the why and not just the how to of their most effective teaching strategies have the motivation and positive expectations to best utilize and expand these strategies.

Even more than the past decade, in the coming years technological improvements will yield valuable breakthroughs in neuroscience research relevant to education. The information will increase with which to guide best preparation of learners to achieve their highest potentials for the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century.

Teachers like these blog writers, with background knowledge about the neuroscience of learning, will be in pivotal positions to recognize potential correlations from future neuroscience research to classroom interventions. As more future, and current, educators acquire background knowledge of the neuroscience of learning, they will be prepared to best serve the needs of students today and guide fellow educators through inevitable and exciting transformations in education.

Judy Willis MD's picture
Judy Willis MD
Neurologist/Teacher/Grad School Ed faculty/Author

Good for you Dr Brown. I appreciate what you are doing and your sentiments about our all being members of the education community who need to keep our ideas and collaborations available to our colleagues
Lots more links to my articles, staff blogs, TEDx videos through my website

Tiphanie's picture

I totally agree with this Video Game Module. If we want to motivate our students to achieve at a high level we must create opportunities based on their individual achievable levels. We cannot expect them to keep their goals set at a high level if they are constantly failing at every task thrown at them. We must motivate them in their next efforts to progress at their individual achievable level, and help them achieve at this level. Each student progresses at different levels and at different stages as they grow and learn, and it is our job to help them move up and continue progressing. We need to create different learning strategies to help them obtain this goal.

Morgan P.'s picture
Morgan P.
Current Student. Future Teacher.

It seems to me that Dr. Willis hit the nail on the head when she said this idea seems counter intuitive. Seeing video games in any sort of positive light is hard for me to do; however the points made about the functions of the brain while playing video games are very interesting! It is amazing to think that children's response to an achievable challenge could actually be what helps them learn and inspires them to continue learning! I also love that she stresses the importance of feedback. Nothing was more frustrating to me as a student than when I received a bad grade on an assignment, but had no idea why. While I do not think I will go around promoting video games any time soon, this video game MODEL is something I can definitely see myself applying in my future classroom!

Judy Willis MD's picture
Judy Willis MD
Neurologist/Teacher/Grad School Ed faculty/Author

WELL SAID - you totally get "it". I'm delighted that you took the time to read beyond the first impulse some folks have in that I'm simply promoting video games. I agree that the feedback component is critical and the more specific and timely the better. Again, look at the video game model in which players immediately see the error they made and can use the feedback about about how their choice/move/aim, etc was incorrect to guide their subsequent move. You'll find lots more about my suggestions about using the video game model via links from my website www.RADTeach.com or just google judy willis and you'll see lots of links to things like TEDx where I speak about this model.
Keep igniting,

Judy Willis, M.D. M.Ed.


Judy Willis MD's picture
Judy Willis MD
Neurologist/Teacher/Grad School Ed faculty/Author

You also are right on with your interpretation of my gist - and clarified my point about achievable challenge in a better way. Your post will help others understand the concepts I'm suggesting.
Keep igniting,

Judy Willis, M.D. M.Ed.

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