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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 (158)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Judy Willis MD's picture
Judy Willis MD
Neurologist/Teacher/Grad School Ed faculty/Author
Blogger 2014

Thanks for your great responses to my blog. I'm following your suggestions and writing my next one about specific free online video games that represent the "video game model" I described. I'll include more about why playing some video games can have a beneficial influence on brain processing, and some cautions.
If any readers have experience with FREE online video games for learning, please recommend them to us as a group so others can start exploring and commenting as I assemble my list and article. For now I'd like to explore the free ones that stay "free" not just "free trial" but as readers and contributers, you can make recommendations of any. If there is a charge, it would be great to let us know.
Keep igniting,
Judy Willis

Robert - Studyladder online resources's picture
Robert - Studyladder online resources
Free inspirational resources for elementary schools.

After reading your article I now realise that our current student rewards system isn't perfect. What we are doing wrong is we are rewarding students the same amount even if they have already conquered an activity. I think we need to change this to a variable points system that lowers reward levels when students revisit activities that they have already completed successfully. Since you asked for free "Video Games", I can't help but mention "Studyladder". It is really only suitable for younger students (3-13 years of age) and it is not a "Video Game" as such but many individual online learning activities that enable students to have a similar experience to video games. They are built to follow each other and give students instant feedback and rewards. It has expanding goals to work towards (virtual reward rooms, trophies etc). Each activity builds on the difficulty of the previous one.

Studyladder is 100% free to teachers, it has always been free to schools and teachers. School students have free unlimited access at school and limited homework access from home. The business funded by those parents who choose to subscribe to the full system that teachers use. Note: Schools continue to have unlimited free access even if no parent at their school subscribes. Studyladder currently covers Mathematics, Literacy, Mastering Numeracy, Science and other subjects

You don't need to join just have a look as this 2 min video to see it is of any use to you first http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ax7e9bauUJc

ps I apologise for suggesting the product I am involved with but we love helping schools and teachers around the world (already over 2,000,000 free users)

Rini Das, CEO www.pakragames.com's picture

Hello Dr. Willis:
Taking up your offer to post to the group -- several of our free games. We focus in teaching adults -- critical thinking skills using online gaming learning. These games might seem initially as multiple choice but they are not multiple choice. We teach folks the consequences of the game player's actions, while giving them an immersive almost real work environment.

This particular one teaches customer service agent to help answer the question a customer is calling about. It has 2 calls that must be fully completed to see your score.

This particular one teaches salesperson to reach the next goal to set an appointment with a prospect while making a cold call. Here too, you must play both calls to see your scores.

This particular one teaches how to provide safe patient care.

All: Please provide feedback to michelle@pakragames.com or here and of course enjoy!
Please register at each site and play!

Joe Rivers's picture

Thinkport.org is a site created by the state of Maryland and it has many interactive games for students. Lure of the Labyrinth is the one I have used with my 7th grade students and it has been the most successful. It is free and it is not selling anything except math skills. Here is the intro. blurb, "Lure of the Labyrinth is a digital game for middle-school pre-algebra students. It includes a wealth of intriguing math-based puzzles wrapped into an exciting narrative game in which students work to find their lost pet - and save the world from monsters! Linked to both national and state mathematics standards, the game gives students a chance to actually think like mathematicians."

Judy Willis MD's picture
Judy Willis MD
Neurologist/Teacher/Grad School Ed faculty/Author
Blogger 2014

This links to a TED talk by Salman Kahn about the free Kahn Website for math.
The system he describes that has over 1 million users has is the perfect example of the video game model for motivation plus the additional benefit of self-pacing through individualized instructional videos. The system offers the exact combination of elements that yield the dopamine high that motivates perseverance in video game players, even though Paul Gee reports that they make errors 80% of the time.
Kahn reads an email he received by someone who described that "dopamine high" elegantly. When the learner experienced the intrinsic reinforcement and dopamine surge from solving a personal-challenge type of problem, after receiving required guided feedback then practicing the process so his newly corrected neural circuits were strengthened, he achieved the conceptual understanding he needed and solved a new type of calculus problem he had failed at previously. He said (and I paraphrase), "I experienced a natural high that lasted for the rest of the day by solving a calculus problem."

Bloggucation's picture
21st Century Fluencies Consultant

Thank you very much for your post. I find it encouraging that qualitative research and study is being done in this area. As 21st Century Fluencies Consultant for my school board (K-12), I promote and support innovative technologies and approaches to education to help support student engagement and achievement. The concept of using video games in the classroom confuses many and I wonder what administrators would think when they visited a classroom. Would they ask about the merit of using video gaming before judging it or would they jump to conclusions that video games = lazy and mindlessness?

I would certainly hope not but the culture is in need of a change.

I would love your feedback on my recent post regarding video games in the kindergarten classroom. My daughter is 6 and loves playing with her Eyepet. I see great potential for this game in a play-based curriculum. So much learning happens under the guise of play - truly fascinating - http://wp.me/pJ4jF-54

Kelle Campbell's picture

Does a free video-game event count? One of our clients, Tabula Digita is hosting a math tournament for students in grades three to eight through the end of April. Kids can download a tournament version of the company's math-based video games for free at www.dimensionu.com/UGames and have the chance to win scholarships, iPod Touches, iPads, etc.

Although this months-long competition is drawing to a close, students can still sign up to play now. Also, we're looking at making it an annual event, so anyone who's interested can check back at the site in November when the competition should be gearing up again.

Vicki Hill Riedel's picture
Vicki Hill Riedel
nonPareil Institute (www.npitx.org)

Thank you, Dr. Willis, for supporting what we parents are observing. I'm with nonPareil Institute, a nonprofit that teaches adults on the autism spectrum to create video games. Two fathers founded nonPareil after observing their own sons with autism. The boys could learn and respond within the games in some ways better than they could respond in real-life situations. So they wondered if adults on the autism spectrum could actually create video games, and found that the answer is "yes". Our first app, nPISoroban,is a math game for the iPad now available in the iTunes store - designed and created by adults on the autism spectrum. We also use video games in our instruction. We specifically choose video games that require teamwork for success so that our autistic adults can practice skills inside games that may be difficult for them outside games.

Dina's picture
Parent of two homeschooled high-school level teens.

First off, thank you all for being a teacher or being so involved in education! I was PTA President at the elementary school my children attended and found a much greater appreciation for what teachers do. Now as a "Learning Coach" I have learned even more.

I have to say that when my kids were little I purchased some of the Math Blaster series of PC games, as well as some others, but I can't quite remember their names. What I do remember is that they helped my children learn things at a very early age compared to their counterparts. The kids also remember them as being a lot of fun. How can that be bad? Using video games as a teaching tool is the future in learning. Keep up the good work teachers and use all the tools you can get!

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!

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