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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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Jasmine's picture

I am a fan of video games. I think they're very enjoyable. Do I think that it should be used all the time to learn lessons or in the class room? NO! I think it can be switched in and out of the class room for practice on subjects or learning new subjects. Every student learns a different way some enjoy books and some and enjoy games and helpful visuals to learn. If it's for an educational purpose I think anything is an excellent idea.

Janie M's picture

I'm not a gamer myself, but this article really made me realize the benefits that a game can actually have on the brain. I guess if there isn't a real reward, people are not likely going to do the task, like washing dishes or getting good grades. If I did good on those things, I will feel good when getting a reward. Just like the brain releases dopamine when you achieve a level. In the article it said, "a computer game doesn't hand out cash, toys, or even hugs. The motivation to persevere is the the brain seeking another surge of dopamine- the fuel of intrinsic reinforcement."Just like in school, when the student can see that they are doing good, they will feel better and try to keep on doing better.

Angela McKnight's picture

I've never really thought about it before, but it makes complete sense to have a video game style of teaching. It's not really the end goal that we should immediately reach for, but rather take things step by step, one level at a time. We should always motivate them to keep going and working at a solution to a problem and make sure they are aware when they have "finished a level" or solved a problem correctly. The more I think about it, it is a very positive and effective way to teach your students. You also must remember that each student won't always move at the same pace so there are different strategies to accomodate this, both for the fast students and the slower students. If students know that there is a reward or "next level" at the end of a lesson or assignment, it would make them try harder and want to keep going.

Lyndsey Sneed's picture

At the age of 10 I stopped playing video games. They were fun, but my parents believed I played them too frequently and was not focusing enough on my school work. They honestly thought that video games were bad for my intellectual development. This article was an awesome insight into how video games are not completely bad for children. If educators could get students this excited about learning to release the same levels of dopamine that kids do in video games then their classrooms would be far more successful. This is something that I will have to keep in mind as a future educator.

Kambry Carter's picture

I really found this article interesting. Most of the time we hear how bad video games are for children. But the use of video games in the classroom is an idea I would of never thought of. I knew that children needed clear goals, but I never noticed how video game provide this in them. The idea of instead of using real wold prizes we use the natural bodies reward system. Dopamine, the bodies natural reward system. The brain then seeks future opportunities to repeat the release of the dopamine.

When trying to be an effective teacher you have to be able to give the children lots of feedback. A video game gives lots of feedbacks to the children. Video games also shows the form of goal progression. We want children to learn how to build up to their goals by having small ones that build up to a bigger idea or goal. The video games are able to give the students a more personal approach than a teacher can to a certain extent. It is able to fit to that child's personal challenge level which is hard for teachers to sometimes find or have time to do.

This article brings in an interesting idea into the classroom that has a lot of rewards for the students. I never knew all the things that video games can provide for the children.

Antoinette's picture

It is amazing to see the recognition we are starting to develop with the student mind. Video games in a classroom setting are a strong tool any teacher could benefit from. Not all students are at the same level of learning, so when teachers give lessons in class some students are falling behind, or not being challenged enough. With IPad populations growing in schools, I hope that we see more Apps that provide educational games for students that can track their progression. Even if the classroom can get fifteen minutes of game time, these games will be able to track a student's progression, and push them to reach new levels.

Rocio Montano's picture

I love that this article shows how we can use video games as a learning tool. This generation of students uses technology all the time, so why not use something that they like and are good at to help them learn? This is an effective tool for all students, especially those students who are tactile learners and learn by doing. Interactive learning games provide instant feedback. If they answer a question correctly, they feel more confident and therefore more compelled to keep trying their best. Students are more motivated to learn if they receive a reward. These games usually provide points or rewards of some sort when they get an answer right. Learning video games also helps students be more aware of their metacognitive behaviors. Knowing where they stand helps them set their own goals and learning strategies.

Kate Akhtar-Khavari's picture

I appreciated the main idea of this article, that teachers should look to video games to discover the secret to intrinsically motivate our students to take on higher levels of academic (or just general) pursuits. "Individualized achievable change" should be used to plan lessons in a differentiated way; when students are assured of success, as the article says, they have no dopamine response to doing it and therefore no reason to repeat a similar activity. Another connection mentioned which I took to heart was the idea that the desire to "move up a level" needs to be translated into the classroom. I've seen this in action with students excited to move up a number in their interventions groups when they've mastered a book.

taylor1221's picture

I like where this idea is going in terms of trying to teach students in a way that they can easily relate to. It would be a great concept to have in the classroom, but I also think that students still need that interaction of learning from a teacher and with their peers. While breaking things down into different levels for each child is a great break for students to have throughout the day, I still believe most of the class time should be taught by the teacher. This could be a great way for students to do homework if everyone has access to a computer or game set, but most of the time that isn't the case. This could be the start of a really good idea though for students in the future.

LaCrista Vickrey's picture

I have never thought about incorporating video games into the classroom. I can see how this would show students they are progressing through the material, and overall being an effective learning tool. I don't believe that everything should be taught through a video game, but I do believe it would be a fun and interactive tool that teachers could use every once and awhile to keep the students motivated in their school work. If a teacher were to give this as a homework assignment, I think more students would participate and complete it, rather than it being a worksheet. I think this could be a great way to get students involved and become hands on in the classroom.

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