Brain-Based Learning

Matching Edtech Products With Neurological Learning Goals

When considering edtech products to improve student achievement, start with a clear goal and ask the relevant, critical questions suggested in this post.

January 28, 2016
Photo credit: via flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The word edtech refers to educational technology that includes online learning activities through games, websites, computer-assisted instruction, and other virtual resources. If you're looking for edtech to meet specific goals or carefully evaluating products for use at your school, here are some suggestions to guide your decisions.

This post can help you make a list of what you want from edtech digital tools that will best suit your goals and that are most consistent with neuroscience research correlations about how the brain most successfully processes information.

What might some of these goals look like?

  • Closing the gaps in students' foundational knowledge
  • Skill practice to build automaticity in facts and procedures
  • Enrichment beyond mastery
  • Applying learning to projects, inquiries, strategic planning, and other transfer opportunities
  • Strengthening neural networks of executive functions

Once you know your goals, the following suggestions can help you select tools best suited to engage and sustain the perseverance of your learners.

Qualities to Seek in Edtech Products and Programs

What we’ve learned from the video game model has facilitated neurological approaches to classroom instruction (without computers). The attributes of buy-in, achievable challenge, and ongoing feedback activate the brain's intrinsic motivation system. In this way, we've come full circle. Learning design can take important cues from the neuroscience and psychology of how and why video games are so successful at motivating K-12 students. Further, these same attributes from the video game model can now help guide your edtech resource selection.

1. Buy-In

If the brain isn't engaged early and doesn't receive frequent feedback of goal progress, engagement drops and, eventually, effort stops regardless of whether it's in classroom instruction, an edtech tool, or a fantasy video game. If a learner doesn't find the edtech tool enjoyable and goal-motivating, it won't be effective.

2. Individualized Opportunities for Achievable Challenge

The best online learning games, apps, and programs sustain engagement through intrinsic motivation. This is provided by the brain's self-motivating dopamine-reward system. When challenges are achieved, the brain releases dopamine, which results in characteristics of intrinsic gratification that can include increased motivation, pleasure, perseverance, attention, and memory.

Products hooking into this brain achievement-reward system can most successfully provide learning personalized for each learner's level of mastery. Initial assessments place the learners at the level of challenge and practice suited to their current skill development or foundational knowledge. The programs then adjust the challenge (in whatever form) as mastery builds.

These best programs show the user that mastering progressive steps will result in successfully achieving the overall learning goal. These steps are needed to let the learner recognize that each level includes a challenge that can be achieved with practice. The ongoing assessments then adjust the level of challenge, allowing each student to experience the repeated boosts from dopamine surges from feedback and incremental goal progress. (These video game attributes have been described in my Edutopia blogs and videos, including How to Plan Instruction Using the Video Game Model).

3. Ongoing Assessment and Feedback

For students to sustain effort, there must be frequent assessment and ongoing feedback of incremental goal progress. This feedback fuels the learner's intrinsic satisfaction needed to persevere through ever-increasing challenge and setbacks.

The edtech products that you're considering should not only adapt any challenge appropriately, but should also provide frequent learner feedback of interim challenges achieved en route to the final goal. You'll recognize the tool as effectively motivating when students are able to recognize and describe the direct correlations between their effort, time, and practice with their ongoing goal progress.

Understanding builds when students need to think of which procedure, formula, or tool is appropriate to solving a variety of problems. If they use only new information for a set of practice questions without understanding why that's a good idea, it's unlikely that they can use the tool when not prompted with the same context or questions used for practice. To achieve transferrable concept understanding, learning and review should be mixed and spaced so that students are required to consider which knowledge to apply, rather than just how to apply it.

Look for Evidence in Reviews or Trial Use Observations

You can also evaluate edtech tools from objective reviews and/or from trial use with your students. (See What Edtech Can You Trust? and Neuromyths and Edu-Ca$h-In: Vetting the "Expert" Claims.)

Consider the following questions when you evaluate whether or not an edtech tool is best suited for your goals and learners.

1. If memorizing rote facts is the goal, how well does the edtech product. . .

  • Sustain attention, hooking and holding student interest and perseverance (e.g. enjoyable gameplay, collaboration, or choice)?
  • Offer timely, corrective feedback and periodic review opportunities at intervals after mastery is first achieved?
  • Supply periodic review questions to assess and reinforce content and procedure automaticity?

Note: Reviews on provide buy-in information through compiled data about student ratings and teacher assessment of student response. Students rate in categories of Liked, Learned, and Recommend.

2. For remediation of missing foundational knowledge, how well does the edtech product. . .

  • Match each student with the best online tools for his or her cognitive, social, and emotional attributes and academic needs?
  • Assess and adapt to students of varying abilities and needs (e.g. instruction with scaffolding supports, content, and practice in a variety of styles and approaches)?
  • Provide options for you to adjust the facts/skills practiced and assessed?
  • Provide ongoing corrective feedback supportive (e.g. encouraging words) at each step, encouraging students to try again?

3. If you want a resource that addresses the problem of varied levels of mastery, how well does the edtech product. . .

  • Provide ongoing learning experiences adapted to each user's achievable challenge level?
  • Provide frequent goal progress feedback?
  • Offer opportunities and resources to support, strengthen, and extend learning?

4. When the goal is ongoing transfer opportunities to build understanding, how well does the edtech product. . .

  • Allow a variety of ways to engage students in a personally relevant experience?
  • Adjust to incorporate the new skills or learning that are developed through a unit?
  • Provide opportunities for novel learning applications to solve new problems, develop strategies, and use creative innovation?
  • Build (activate) executive functions through measures such as tool selection, prioritizing, or having learners evaluate resource validity?
  • Assess (and provide teacher feedback of) students' concept understanding?

Joy and enthusiasm are essential for learning -- literally, scientifically, and as a matter of fact and research -- and the best edtech can help us increase these responses in our students. If you start with a clear goal and ask relevant, critical questions of what you’re considering, you're well on your way to improving student achievement in your classroom.

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