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A Neurologist Makes the Case for the Video Game Model as a Learning Tool

| Judy Willis MD

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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Comments (161)

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I have thought about certain

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I have thought about certain skill games (such as those specifically designed for that purpose) leading to growth between connections within the brain. I have seen games and exercises like this on sites such as Luminosity. However, I had never previously recognized this in relation to a standard video game, but can see how it makes sense due to the pleasure response given due to successfully completing a challenge. I can also see the definite benefits of goals being met as tokens/coins being gained as you do better; it helps in pacing it out. I personally do not enjoy video games very much, but know people who do and can definitely see how this could help them to “work out” their brain more.

I think this is a very

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I think this is a very interesting idea to consider when thinking about the classroom. I think the article makes a good point when it mentions the stress failure or unforeseeable achievement places on a student in the learning environment. I think a student is much more likely to learn when they are rewarded or when they feel confident about their abilities. I think students need more satisfaction regarding progress. Some students struggle, and they never acknowledge even their small achievements. This results in them giving up or considering their failures over their achievements. I think employing some video game features like acknowledgement of achievements or short term goals related to progress would be extremely beneficial to the classroom and to a student's learning. I will definitely try to find ways to incorporate this into my future classroom.

I thought this article was

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I thought this article was very interesting. I never thought about using a video game as basis in the classroom. I think it is a brilliant idea. The more I think about it, the more it makes sense. Video game levels get more challenging as you proceed to the next level. The first few should be pretty easy, and what you learn in the previous levels help you in the upper levels. Just like in school, the first part should be pretty easy and then the lessons should slowly become more challenging. I think the difficult part would be having students on different levels and trying to make sure a lesson is directed at all the levels in a classroom.

I am a Junior in the educational program at University of Texas @ Arlington

This was an awesome article

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This was an awesome article and it gave me so much information. I am a student seeking EC-6 (degree at the University of Arlington) and I also work in an elementary school and I am always asking different teachers, what do they do to keep the children excited or interested in the lessons. I learn by hands on experience and I hope to be able to incorporate that in my class room. Dr. Willis is so true about students being board and when that happens their behavior is compromised and some student are disruptive in class and begin acting out. I like the video model way of thinking also, Most kids play video games with so many different systems and they work to achieve that next level in the game and I would love to be able to use that in my classroom. In my reading, it was said having student records their results of lessons achieved so they are able to see the results and they are in complete control over it. Students never want to be wrong and I hope to be able to teach my students that sometime you will have a incorrect answer but we use that to enhance our knowledge and strive to get it right the next time. Love this article.

I never realized a video game

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I never realized a video game could be an effective learning tool. It’s amazing the way a child’s brain responds to different levels of difficulty. It’s interesting that by setting a video game to an achievable level that is also a challenge really helps their brains to develop and helps them to learn. I think this is a great tool that I’m glad they have started using in classrooms because it catches their attention and motivates them to learn.

This blog really opened my

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This blog really opened my eyes to how the brain works when it comes to video games. Many people probably have the question of why students show much more interest in video games than in their schoolwork. This blog really answered that question. I think that it is a great idea of a teaching strategy that will be very effective. I know in school when I already mastered something and I had to wait for the rest of the class to move on, it caused behavior problems for me and I just didn't care about what was being discussed all through that unit. Now I see why. Great blog.

I appreciated how Dr.Willis

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I appreciated how Dr.Willis explained how a child can effectively receive intrinsic reinforcement by simply playing a video game and how a teacher can mimic the video games’ feedback by applying trial-and-error and corrective feedback to the child as they are learning in the classroom. Dr.Willis expressed how the child’s brain can go into a state of stress caused by boredom when the child is only listening to information or filling out worksheets in the classroom. It is amazing to know how a simple video game can not only motivate a child to continue learning, but also help them retain the information in their long-term memory as well. While playing a video game you can immediately see the results of your effort without worrying who is there to see your mistakes, therefore helping you remain attentive and continue to be curious in knowing more of what’s there to be learned. It’s amazing how the reward is simply knowing you effectively understood the information or task!

I believe the video game

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I believe the video game module is a fantastic idea! I feel this is a fun way to engage students that keep them interested about learning. This approach is outside the norm of what they usually associate with learning in the classroom. This approach will benefit the students in so many ways and will help them learn more by providing the dopamines needed for mental growth. The video games can bring a fresh approach to teaching and help build students' confidence.

I think the video game model

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I think the video game model is a great learning tool. It's not specifically endorsing video games but more the immediate feedback and Dopamine boosts that come with feedback response. It should be a part of a teacher's curriculum and because a teacher has multiple kids to provide feedback to, a video game can assist with that workload. I think an important part of the process is that the activities be challenging for the student and not easy to accomplish. I do think the actual use of a video game should be limited in the classroom.

I do wonder about the real world implications and long term effects of having constant immediate feedback and Dopamine boosts. This is not something that the child will experience as an adult. Will there be issues for the child transitioning to an adult and sometimes receiving no feedback, let alone immediate feedback?

I think that using video

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I think that using video games as a tool to help children learn and apply their knowledge is brilliant. Video games are challenging and engaging. Not to mention children seem to love them. Using them as a tool to reinforce what is learned in a classroom, or even just using them to teach certain concepts, is a genius way to help children actually enjoy what they are learning. The release of dopamine as a reward is an amazing alternative to the physical rewards and positive reinforcements children receive in their classes today. I’m sure this method will help to show children that just learning information in general is reward enough!

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