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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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Paul Bogdan's picture
Paul Bogdan
Student-Centered Secondary Math Teacher
Blogger 2014

The enjoyment of a video game comes in beating the levels. When you are on a level you think about it all day. In Lost Horizon the puzzles are so complex it took me days to figure some of them out and thinking back, there were places where I did the same thing over and over and over just trying to find something that I missed, something to get me to the solution. In Painkiller the bad guys come at you with such intensity that you have to know when to run, when to fight, and which weapon is most effective. You die many, many times figuring it out, and it's fun.

I think that one of the things that corresponds to game levels in my math classroom are the quizzes and tests. This is why I never felt right putting a low grade on one and then moving on. My method of red dots on wrong answers and a second chance to 'beat this level' is an attempt to give every student a chance at the endorphin rush (blog article). When a student still gets a low grade, I give them a 'redo', another chance at the rush. A key element in the fun of a video game is that each level has to be mastered. Same thing in the classroom. We need to lead the students from rush to rush, not downer to downer.

Another thought is about cheating. When you cheat at a video game by going to a cheat site the rush is less or non existent.

Another thought is about group work. Video games are individual. I've never been sold on the value of group work compared to individual work.

Great article Judy. Please tell us more about how to apply this to our classrooms.

Aaron Bieniek's picture
Aaron Bieniek
Board Certified Elementary / High School Math Teacher

Yeah, I'm with Paul. Leveling up is key. Solving linear equations in Algebra I is an easy place to differentiate and allow students the opportunity to become Level 12 Equation Solvers.

And not to try and sell team work, but two things come to mind. Not all video games are individual and even the ones that are, sometimes require a hint or walkthrough from someone else. In my experience students are much better at explaining things to other students than I am. Probably has a lot to do with who and what students care about as well as the difficulty of remembering what it is like to learn something that you have known for so long. My colleagues laugh, but I argue that my students do some of their best work when I'm not around.

Secondly, I can't think of many situations in life where you sit in a row and work by yourself on a daily basis - besides, of course, in the classroom. Typical (traditional?) classrooms, to me, don't seem to model reality. Being a teacher certainly is not an individual event - learning shouldn't be either.

I'm ranting now. I should be figuring out how to make Judy's findings relevant to my kids...

Dan Jones's picture
Dan Jones
6th, 7th, and 8th grade social studies teacher and 8th grade language arts
Blogger 2014

I really liked this video. It made a lot of sense. I have been studying the use of video games in the classroom. I posted this video on my website. www.ideasforteachers.org. Thanks so much for sharing.

Laura Coker's picture
Laura Coker
Critical care obstetrics RN (disabled)

Dr. Willis, this is a marvelous essay. Gaming has been used to successfully treat ADHD, ADD (which I believe is largely environmentally induced.)The process of "entrainment", whereby the predominent brainwave states "follow" light and sound stimuli is well documented, but largely unrecognized. The issue of concern, with respect to neurotransmitter (dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, GABA), systems-is the increasing numbers of children on psychotropes, and the likely (detrimental) impact on the learning-motivational feedback loop. I have grave concerns regarding the "anti-psychotics", including newer generation drugs (seroquel, respiridol etc), which deliberately diminish dopamine (but some claim may increase it in "other" areas of the brain. The antidepressants, by increasing serotonin-recripocally decrease dopamine as well. I hope you will address this issue, and look forward to your "feedback". Thanks.

Kelle Campbell's picture

Actually, it's very possible to combine video games and group work. First, as Aaron points out, students are usually very good at helping each other figure out games so you can have collaboration right off. Second, there are some educational multiplayer video games that enable students to form teams and play against other teams or even against other schools. Some teachers think the teamwork increases engagement even more.

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

What a great article. After reading, I immediately forwarded it to all of our staff. Judy so clearly stated what we all knew but didn't quite understand. We continually see the +ve effect that occurs when you give instant feedback and rewards. Thanks to your article we can now see the importance of not allowing students to work below their ability just to earn rewards, we will definitely be adjusting our companies thinking after reading this article.

I personally have no time for video games, but love this article and all of its comparisons. We receive instant feedback from over 1,000,000 users and constantly see the exact reactions that Judy described. Now we know WHY. Well done judy

Joe Rivers's picture

This was a good article. Dr. James Paul Gee has written similar articles as well. When are we going to see educational games that will work in middle schools? Lure of the Labrynth is the best I've seen but we need more. It would be great to see some recommendations on this site.

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