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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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Richard Garner's picture
Richard Garner
Game Developer and Father of 3

I'm very excited to see such positive and insightful discussions regarding video games. If I could only add one dash of my own spice into this mix...

I see several questions and references to educational games, however I would like to encourage others to consider the effective value of non-educational games.

As a father AND game developer, I often play PC games with my boys and then use their in-game tactics to teach valuable life lessons. For example, a strategy game in which my middle son horded his resources and allowed his teammate to perish was the focus of a family devo we held about considering the needs of others.

Or in a game called Battleforge, players use their troops to achieve challenges and win through strategy. However, my eldest son has begun to design, develop and even PROGRAM his own maps and levels for the game... at the age of 11.

I also use games like Unreal and Portal to build quick decision making and out-of-the-box thinking patterns.

It's great to see so many wonderfully smart people here discussing this. Thank you!

Randy Kulman's picture
Randy Kulman
President, LearningWorks for Kids

Dr. Willis , thank you for describing the neurobiology of children's immersion in video games or what we have termed, "engamement". There is no question that children are exercising critical thinking or executive functioning skills when they play many video games. However, I have concerns about how well these game-based executive skills generalize to the real world.

Unfortunately, most games do not have adequate feedback to facilitate transfer of thinking skills to daily activities. I agree with your premise of educating teachers (and parents) about the value of learning from video games and would suggest taking it a step further. Engaging parents and teachers to help children identify, reflect and connect game-based skills to the real world will result in far more learning. But first, we need to convince parents and teachers that there is value in the games themselves and then show them how to use games as a learning tool, just as they might use books, science experiments and play as an opportunity for teaching.

We have developed tools that show parents, teachers, and kids "how to" use popular video games to learn skills such as planning, organization, focus, and self control at http://learningworksforkids.com . We use many free online games as a tool for learning which can be found on our "games" page . I hope this helps your readers.

Allen Berg's picture
Allen Berg
curriculum and projects learning centers

Dear Colleagues,

To Celebrate the Centennial of the New York City Public Library, especially the Famous Main Branch Building on 42nd Street in Manhattan,
they have created a free online Video Game that will allow players around the world to participate in a "research-hunt" (similar to a "treasure hunt :-) traveling through the 40 miles of real underground aisles of the Museum/Library to discover Rare and/or Never-Seen-In-Public Artifacts and Archives to help answer the Challenge Question:
"What will your life be like 10 years from now?"

If you like Rare Books and Historical Manuscripts and Prints etc.
and/or want to offer this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to your students... check out their website about how to enter the contest and play the video game...

The Winners (it's a team game) will actually get to write and publish their own Book, that will be included in the Library's Collection...


Biblio, Allen

mrobrienteacher's picture

Aaron has the thing figured out. Too many people are focusing on using video as the next media format for conveyance of information. As a father, teacher, and video game player, the beauty of the video game is that there is so much information that can be mined from playing "regular" games that is not content, not "dead men and dates".

"Regular" video games are vastly superior for in-class educational purposes to "Educational Games."

Luria Learning's picture
Luria Learning
3rd Grade Teacher and Founder of Luria Learning

Thank you so much for your post. I think that as educators we have a lot to learn about video games and how we can give more frequent feedback to our students.

One way I like to give feedback to students is to have practice be in the form of a game. I will put up a problem for a group of students and they will have a certain number of minutes to complete the problem. When the time is up they switch papers with a partner. We then go over the problem as a class, and they earn points for getting the problem correct.

I get immediate feedback on who needs more help, students get immediate feedback on their progress. They think it is a game, and I can correct mistakes as they are happening. Lastly, the students do most of the work of correcting the papers (scoring points) during the game, leaving me with more time to plan.


Kelle Campbell's picture

Since Dr. Willis asked for free educational video game resources, I'm posting another one.

Tabula Digita wrapped up its first U Games National Scholarship Tournament at the end of April, but it's getting ready for its third annual U Games Summer Challenge, May 30-August 7.

Student players in grades 3-8 can join the free competition at any time during the 10-week event even if they did not participate in an earlier round. They can play award-winning DimensionM games that offer the opportunity to master 200+ unique math skills as well as DimensionL game that gives them an exciting way to practice 200+ essential literacy skills.

Players will be competing for gift cards and summer-related prizes like inline skates, inflatable pools, beach volleyball sets or tents. In addition, five lucky players will be randomly selected to win an iPod Nano each. More details can be found at: www.DimensionU.com/SummerChallenge.

Sarah's picture
Special Education Teacher

Dr. Willis,

I find this article extremely eye opening and I really agree with you. I know so many of the teachers that I work with always talk about how technology is taking over our youth and are hesitant to really utilize it. However, I encourage it. I think a video game that would teach learning in a fun and exciting way would really allow my students to grow. I never really considered that video games do often lead to failure (80%) as you recognized. But where I really was shocked is that you are right, the game then gives "hints" or "tips" on what to try next. This is just like teacher scaffolding.

I am definitely going to use the resources posted and have my students sign up to play these free games. Learning is changing and I am excited to see if these new "games" will help my students. Thanks.


Mary Kate Land's picture
Mary Kate Land
Montessori 4-6th grade teacher

Hi Dr. Willis,

Your work is very thought-provoking!

We use individualized learning strategies and frequent feedback in my classroom and it is indeed a great model for student engagement. Someone asked me a while back what motivates my students since we have an ungraded system where testing is minimalized. He really coudn't believe that they do the work because they want to know and they want to make progress toward the next level.

Many of my students are responsible for leveling themselves in their classroom tasks. When they feel ready to move on, they consult with me about the decision and then they go forward, often beaming with confidence. It is pure magic!


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

Understanding by Design Meets Neuroscience: Teaching to the Test and Rote Memory Tests as Measurement of Achievement are Not Neuro-logical for Successful, Joyful, Learning. ASCD Edge
The below is only part 3 but you can go back to the others or download full pdf
Go to link in the column on right side of page when you scroll down to "Shared Group Documents & Resources" to download "Judy Willis' Complete Series of 3 posts Understanding by Design Meets Neuroscience or use direct link: http://groups.ascd.org/resource/documents/110564-JudyWillisCompleteSerie...

Pete's picture

I read this blog post and related articles. I am involved in training and education of adults in a government venue. I have been thinking a great deal on how to fuse the excitement for learning a subject through a system such as a video game and adult oriented training and education. I have found that in some cases adults can learn with a game concept. Some of my peers have conducted a meshing of college level students and video games and it has done well.
I was curious if any research has been done in the adult education arena regarding this approach and if so, where I could go to research it.
I appreciate your time and your innovative view of the possibilities of games in education.

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