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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.


Comments (179)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Elva Castillo's picture

This article made my opinion on video games completely change in an instant! The points made are fascinating, some that I would have never thought of myself. The achievable challenge level is a great point that I now believe every child goes through in the learning process; thus, the process of learning is same in both classroom lectures and video games, the only difference is that children enjoy video games. For this reason, parents and teachers should re-think the typical belief that "video games are the enemy of education," and embrace the development of technology that we are experiencing; especially because children are attracted to it and will be motivated to learn with the use of video games. Video games have a deep impact on the development of children so why not make it a positive impact?!

Ladelia's picture

As a person who enjoys video games, the concept of this article seems so obvious. As a video game progressively gets harder, the mind begins to challenge itself more and put forth more effort to excel. I would even, while playing a game, get to a harder level and begin using my prior knowledge from previous levels to see how well that will help me succeed. It seems only natural for an educator to implement such a system in the classroom with immediate rewards or penalties for accomplishments and downfalls. This would both interest and involve the students. It makes perfect sense to me.

Haley's picture
Future Elementary Teacher

I am currently studying to become an elementary teacher. I find this article very interesting to see how child's brain interact and how they work. I love the idea of incorporating video games and I agree that are a very helpful for children's brains in that they help with the fast actions and the sounds, this gives them the opportunity to learn a fast reaction time. I also liked the idea for the students to be able to keep their own records for the goals. This way they themselves can keep up with their progress which will give them the motivation to be more successful in their schoolwork and their learning.

Lindsey Gilley's picture
Lindsey Gilley
Early Childhood Education Student- Planning to teach Pre-K or Kindergarten

As a future teacher, i find this article very interesting. it is ironic to me how growing up most parents discouraged the use of video games because of the distraction it made from homework and other lessons. With this article, it makes the video game model seem essential to students. I agree exactly with the concept of getting through easy levels to get to the hard stuff and how it makes it very appealing to get to the next level. If this was the way learning and teaching was, children would be eager to learn new things and complete harder tasks. However, I do agree that this type of model would take a lot of time since it would have to be individually appropriate, but I believe it is worth the time. When students are eager to learn, no amount of time is too much!

Rebekah Reyes's picture

I really enjoyed reading this article. I myself enjoy playing video games and up until now, I have realized how important goal-oriented video games are for children who are growing up today's society. I am currently studying to become an early childhood education teacher and from what I have observed in both a kindergarten and a first grade classroom is the use of electronic devices ranging from smart boards to iPad's. I absolutely would not mind seeing video games in my classroom!

Brenda Frias's picture
Brenda Frias
Education Major

I find this article rather interesting. It amazes me to find out how many parents highly discourage video games because they feel like its doing damage and keeping them from trying to learn, but while reading this I was able to see how they can actually be very beneficial because its encouraging children to aim higher every time they get through a level. I really think that teachers should start incorporating this into their lesson plans as a way to do homework. Maybe, they could get through math levels on their Wii and by keeping the score it could somehow be accessible to the teacher and they could be graded on that as homework but the child wouldn't feel as pressured or perhaps as bored.

Erika Gessler's picture

This article can open up so many options to educators. With the use of video games, we can engage our students and execute our lessons in one sweep! The students will be enjoying themselves as they learn the required content. Because a child's work is play, it is important to engage them and supply them with opportunites unique to their learning experience. They will be able to look back and say that they learned what they did through the use of a video game. Will they be able to say that about a worksheet?

Erika Gessler's picture

This article can open up so many options to educators. With the use of video games, we can engage our students and execute our lessons in one sweep! The students will be enjoying themselves as they learn the required content. Because a child's work is play, it is important to engage them and supply them with opportunites unique to their learning experience. They will be able to look back and say that they learned what they did through the use of a video game. Will they be able to say that about a worksheet?

Jennifer W.'s picture

This article was very interesting to read. I never thought to compare learning to playing video games but it makes complete sense! If children understand the concept of starting at the easy level and working their way to the hard level, they can apply the same thinking to learning something new. However, I also think this concept could be used with other activities like sports. When you begin to learn to play baseball you may not be that good at it. However, with more practice you can get better and eventually master the skill. I really enjoyed reading this article and will apply techniques like these in my classroom!

Jenny Park's picture

This article provided scientific evidence that showed that video games are not as harmful as critics claim for it to be. I never would have thought that video games could actually be educational and beneficial to children if they incorporate the proper incremental goals and achievable challenge levels. Dopamine is a powerful neurotransmitter that seems to push players to continually strive for a higher achievement of goal. Video games are a great way for students to track if they are improving and reaching their goals. In this article, I also learned that it is good to have video games that are more challenging because it makes children work harder to achieve higher levels or more points. Video games are also easy to fit to each child's individual challenges and needs because they provide immediate feedback and provide hints and cues for the students to succeed.

I think it was a great idea to use the same concept of video games in an authentic classroom experience by making sure students keep and achieve individualized goals. Teachers should also provide effective feedback. This will keep students motivated and learn how to persevere through tough challenges in learning.

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