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
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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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MMartin's picture

I played some video games in Jr. High and High School but not a lot. The only ones I really enjoyed were MarioKart and sports on the Wii. It is interesting what she said about how on video games there are incentives to keep playing and trying harder and how that should be the same with homework, tests, etc. I never thought about this but it's true. I remember with MarioKart if I didn't win there was the sudden urge to want to keep playing until I did. I also agreed with this statement "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." That is so true. If something is too hard and we have tried over and over again we won't want to anymore. It's frustrating and we don't want to use our energy on it. It's the same in the classroom. If we think we can't succeed at the assignment it is harder for us to want to. In the past we haven't wanted video games or iPhones/iPads in the classroom but it is starting to show up more. I think technology and video games are important now for the generation we are going to teach. Today there are a lot of websites online that are great for education. This is definitely something I will incorporate into my teaching.

endora vega's picture

I found this article very interesting, and I agree with it. As the new generation of children has changed and more technology is exposed in our daily lives I can say that obviously children will be more tempted to want to enjoy time using technology. As a future teacher I will definitely use technology in my classroom. I believe my future students should have the right to have the best education experience possible. After reading this article I can feel comfortable exposing my students to educational games to stimulate their learning.

CharleneM's picture

I have a son who is a gamer and I can honestly say I have witnessed this first hand. He comes and tells me when he gets a new achievement or masters a game. Most of the time I have no idea what he's talking about as I am not a gamer, but I do know that he seems elated that he has "beat" the game. Video games could prove to be an excellent tool in the classroom. My son has loved video games sense he was very young. When he was four he had a learning video game. It was handheld, and had a game where he learned letters. Even at this young age, he got so much enjoyment out of the onscreen fireworks that would go off when he was able to recognize the correct letters. I very much believe that video games can be beneficial in the classroom. As a future teacher, I will look for video games that appeal to my students and that will keep them engaged so that they may experience that dopamine rush that will keep them playing and learning.

mabellyneca's picture

Technology plays an important role not only in adults' lives but in children's lives as well. This article is very interesting as it helps us understand why video gaming is so popular among children. If we incorporate fun activities like the ones children find in videogames, students will become more engaged and interested in schoolwork. I have always said that I don't want to be known as the "boring" teacher. I want students to enjoy my class while still learning adequately. Just like the article said that students feel accomplishment by "moving up a level", I want them to feel that in my classroom when they have learned something new.

lindsay.westbrooks's picture

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I found this article to be quite interesting. I think that incorporating video games into children's learning can be both beneficial and harmful. It can be beneficial if it is used as more of a reward based learning. It could be something that is used only on one day of the week or for certain times of the day. The lessons cannot solely rely on the use of instruction and learning through video games. Students need to be introduced to different types of instruction and not so heavily rely on technology to help them become engaged. I do believe that the incorporation of video games can help students to want to challenge themselves. I have seen my younger brother play video games and he won't give up on it until he reaches a goal or a certain achievement in the game. If students would apply this determination to their learning through video games, then it could open a whole new door and allow them to become more successful.

Natasha Boggan's picture

I know video games have a definite place in education. My little brother loves being able to play the math games (like on CoolMathGames and go on XtraMath to practice what he's learning in school, as it keeps his interest and helps him get the concepts down. However, I honestly wish that was the only type of game he played. When he's out of school, it's all Minecraft on the Playstation and playing Roblox on the computer. When it's not an educational game, children seem to forget about boundaries in order to explore this unfamiliar thing. I'm pretty much turning into one of those who believe children under a certain age should be limited not only in internet access, but they should only be allowed to play school-related games, something that will actually teach them something. Outside of a learning application, who knows what they're really getting into as soon as you turn your back.

Vicole Nguyen's picture

Honestly, I was not a huge proponent of adding video games to the classroom because I always felt that it would be a distraction for kids. However, after reading this article, I can see how video games can be applicable in the classroom. When they solve a problem in a game, it gives them a sense of accomplishment and and intrinsic motivation to keep playing the game, which in turn helps them learn better. Video games can also challenge students with the different levels that they would have to complete. Even if they don't do well on a level, they can learn from the mistakes they made, along with hints given, which encourages them to learn independently. I think, if applied effectively, video games can be beneficial to a student's success in the classroom.

CourtneyM's picture

This article was very fascinating to me! I like the idea of the video game model in the classroom. The article emphasizes the importance of acknowledging incremental goal progress, not just acknowledgement of the end result. Another point that I thought was important was that younger brains require dopamine boosts frequently in order to keep them motivated. This just goes on to emphasize the point that progress needs to be acknowledged. This can be done through kind words, positive feedback, or even just handing out stickers for a job well done. I will definitely keep this in mind in my own classroom.

Emcapp2010's picture

Our world is now run by technology, even with the younger generation. I love the fact that this blog promotes educational video games in a positive way that can really help children learn at school. With everyone wanting instant gratification these days, these educational video games will give the kids the answer immediately, either boosting the children's confidence in their work or giving them a chance to correct it and learn what they did wrong. I believe that some of these games make it more fun for children to learn. They have characters and sounds which children already love, but now they get to learn at the same time with different strategies. Working with children, I have seen them come in glued to their ipads playing fun games like these. It is great that technology can help their education in such a positive way.

kristenjanie's picture

This article looks at video games in a new perspective, and I completely agree with it. Dopamine motivation is what strives us to keep growing as learners and achieve certain goals. With this positive assurance, students are willing to keep participating until the task is complete. It is important for students to be slightly challenged, but not given an impossible task, such as when levels in games are easy, medium, or difficult. The same can be done in classrooms. Assessments can show what level gaming the student should participate in so that they are getting the most out of it.

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