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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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Ryan T's picture

I agree with this idea. My son will sit and play on the ipad for hours on end with incremental rewards of gold or coins or tokens. He loves the outcome of his action and the immediate or near immediate consequence. We have him use Think Through Math also. It is not the graphic draw that his favorite games are, but he is rewarded with points that can actually be used to do good in the world. He keeps track of them and how much he can help others around the U.S. I can see the reward getting him satisfaction and keeping him coming back for more. The idea and use of video game-like learning is one filled with potential for learning. If managed and overseen properly, it could be a great benefit to those who get to use it.

Mai Tran's picture

I was never into playing video games as a child, or even now. I thought that constantly playing video games were very unproductive. As I read this article, it makes perfect sense to me to why teachers should allow video games in the classroom as a teaching tool. Children looks for feedback constantly and I think video games does that. Not only is it a good took for teaching the students, it also releases dopamine to other regions of the brain producing pleasure. I believe that that's the reason why it would motivate the kids. As a future teacher, I would absolutely use video games as a way to teach the students. It's fun, motivates the kids and gives them the pleasure of knowing they solves a problem. After reading this article, I definitely am going to incorporate this teaching technique.

mlzhuff's picture

I am a huge proponent of using educational video games to reinforce and support learning. As a matter of fact I used many various video games from online, computer, handheld devices, and gaming systems as a means to help reinforce literacy and math in my own children and still do. When it comes to this video game theory and using it in the classroom I am a little skeptical. I'm not sure that I would completely agree that the individual continues to play the video game and search for more difficult tasks as a result of the brains release of Dopamine. I believe that the success of such video games lies in the interaction that the child gets from the game as well as the combination of information received from the senses all at one time. When children play video games they are working with their hand, their eyes, their ears, and sometimes even their mouths. Their brains are working on not only taking in information from all of these senses but also in responding just as quickly through each of their senses. The multitasking that is taking place in the brain requires an enormous amount of energy and ability to focus from the brain than normal classroom activities normally require. It is in this concept that I think classroom activities could benefit; allowing students to learn through more hands on activities that require interaction and not just reading and writing and listening can enhance their learning experiences and success.

As for the Dopamine being caused by achievements and making correct choices, I think that the author should be a little cautious in this assumption. Not all children find complete satisfaction in positive and more challenging progress. I have seen children before who enjoy "loosing" at video games because of the outcomes that respond. Have you ever seen a child laugh uncontrollably when his character falls off of the edge of something or sinks into the water, ultimately causing the child to loose a "life" in the game? Also, what about the child who doesn't like a challenge so he consistently plays the game on the easiest level setting just so that he can reach the end of the game without any effort? He's playing the game but what real satisfaction is he truly getting from it?

My belief is this: All children are different and their motivation for doing things varies. As educators it is our responsibility to discover what strategies work best in motivating our students to perform and learn and implement those strategies into our classrooms. As social beings students love feedback but we have to be aware of how each student responds to various forms of feedback. Video games are a great example of how positive and instantaneous feedback can be beneficial but at the same time some students get greater pleasure from negative feedback and instantaneous isn't always possible in the classroom.

More importantly while this article focuses on the release of Dopamine as a positive chemical reaction in response to reward and pleasure I also feel that it is important to note that Dopamine is also associated with addiction, risk taking behaviors, and emotional responses. In conjuction the brain also releases epinephrine and serotonin as neural transmitters and the combinations of these three can result in more than 100,000 chemical reactions in the brain every second as well as produces more than 50 identified active drugs that can affect intelligence, memory, emotions, reactions, etc. The release of epinephrine is greatly associated with attention, motivation, pleasure, and reward so I think that this study should have also included perhaps the affects that video games has on its release as well.

Sara Najera's picture

I personally know little about video games! Having only played a few myself. However this article is very insightful. It is interesting to see why children get so excited to play video games versus learning in a classroom. As a future teacher I want my students to enjoy learning and want to find exciting ways to do this. Anddd if that's video games then so be it.

aparmenter's picture

I don't know much about video games but I do know that I have always thought that they were counterproductive to learning. I always joke about playing video games when you want to turn your brain off. But after reading this, I stand corrected. The reward of a more challenging problem totally makes sense to me. I think the satisfaction of doing well is much higher when the challenge was greater. This is something that I think gives credit to wholesome video games as being more beneficial than originally thought and gives those of us becoming teachers a method to use in the classroom to inspire active learning.

rikke's picture

I always thought that video games was the reason that children are not as active anymore. Children don't play outside anymore, don't even really talk to each other anymore. After reading this article, I see now that having a fun way for the students to learn will make them want to participate now. If playing a learning video game is going to make them learn and want to do it, then I think that is great.

Christin Sichmann's picture

The article makes a good point by saying that when students answer a difficult problem that challenges them and they get the correct answer, they feel a sense of satisfaction and reward. However, when students answer easy questions that they already know the answer to, there is no satisfaction nor a feeling of reward. Video games are a great solution to this problem because video games get harder the further you get while always providing you with feedback suck as points or money. Another reason why video games are good for students is because it challenges them on their individual level. After reading this article I see how video games in classrooms can be very benefical in a way that I have never thought of before. Students would prefer to complete a level in a video game much more than doing worksheets.

heather.eaves93's picture

This honestly seems like a wonderful method as far as teaching and increasing motivation. As the article states, "it is only when the brain perceives a reasonable amount of success... that it invests the energy and activates the dopamine reward circuit." Video games generally get more difficult as the player continues along their journey. In this way, students will start out with something they can accomplish and as they continue, they will seek out achievements that will reward them and activate the dopamine reward circuit. While video games have always been fun for children, educational video games create a new opportunity for students and teachers! As a future teacher, I have to keep in mind that not all video games are bad and that the right ones can be valuable tools for me to use as I try to encourage my students to become engaged in their learning.

rebeccab's picture

The article really makes sense to me especially when including dopamine motivation into learning activities and how it reacts. I think that when you find that video game that connects to your lesson and when it works with student engagement then it makes them excited about learning! When I was younger I would rarely play video games, but now seeing how they incorporate video games that actually have meaning behind them and games that help students learn is a great tool to use and have in your classroom.

Duaa's picture

I absolutely loved this article's content and organization. As described, dopamine motivation is a physiological response developed in evolutionary progression. This type of motivation is compared to "quenching a long thirst"; therefore, creating a longing to return to the action that triggered the dopamine reaction. This can be found in video games and can be incorporated within the classroom. If teachers could incorporate a way to trigger this type of motivation, children will want to return to the action. Games that contain multi levels, celebratory sound effects, and accumulating points are the key to the dopamine response and successful education.

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