The popularity of video games is not a threat to learn; instead, it shows what the best ways are to teach. Players are put in games at a level of difficulty that they can handle, and they are rewarded for their hard work and practice by being told how far they have come toward their goals. This process is driven by the pleasure that comes from dopamine being released.
Like the brains of most mammals, the human brain is hard-wired with physiological responses that have helped us survive at some point in evolution. The brain’s recognition of a correct prediction, choice, or behavior response is what keeps the dopamine-reward system going.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that sends a strong feeling of pleasure to other parts of the brain when it is released in larger amounts than usual. This kind of happiness is like quenching a long-lasting thirst. After making a guess, choice, or action and getting feedback that it was right, the brain releases dopamine as a reward. This makes the brain look for more chances to do the same thing. This helps animals make decisions and act in ways that keep their species alive, like following a new scent that leads to a mate or food and remembering that scent the next time it’s around.
If you don’t suffer, you won’t win
The dopamine-reward system helps us stay alive by helping us learn new skills and respond in new ways. The system is only turned on and ready to be used when the outcome of a mental or physical effort is not certain. If there aren’t any risks, there’s nothing to gain. If there is no challenge, like when a student who is good at adding two-digit numbers is asked to add one-digit numbers, the dopamine-reward network is turned on.
Humans need to know that they solved a problem, figured out a puzzle, answered a hard question correctly, or learned how to play a song on the piano or swing a baseball bat to hit a home run in order to get the dopamine reward response that makes them feel good and keeps them going. This is why students need to use what they learn in real-world ways that let them see their progress as clearly as they do when playing video games.
Awareness of Goal Progress in Small Steps
In a sequential, multilevel video game, players are often given constant feedback on their progress, such as points, visual tokens, or happy sound effects. However, the real dopamine reward comes when the player solves the problem, completes the sequence, etc., needed to move on to the next, more difficult level. When the brain hears that progress has been made, it strengthens the networks that helped it do well. Through a system of feedback, that neuronal circuit gets stronger and lasts longer. In other words, the brain is reminded of the thought or action that led to the dopamine reward.
It may seem strange to think that kids would think that doing more work is a reward for doing well on a hard homework problem, test, or physical skill to which they put a lot of mental or physical effort. Still, that’s exactly what the brain of a video game player wants after the pleasure of getting to a new level. You can’t get money, toys, or even hugs from a computer game. The brain wants another rush of dopamine, which is the fuel of intrinsic reinforcement, so it can keep going.
Individualized Challenges That Can Be Met
Individualized achievable challenge level is when a task, action, or choice isn’t so easy that it’s almost automatic or always right. When this happens, the brain isn’t looking for feedback, and the dopamine reward response system isn’t turned on. Also, the task shouldn’t seem so hard that there’s no chance of doing well. The brain only invests energy and turns on the dopamine reward circuit when it thinks there is a good chance of achieving a goal it wants.
fMRI and cognitive studies show that before putting mental effort into solving a problem, the brain “estimates” how likely it is that the effort will be successful. If the challenge seems too hard or if a student is sure, based on past failures, that they won’t do well in a subject or on a topic, the brain probably won’t put in the work that is needed to meet the challenge.
The brain is a three-pound organ that needs 20 percent of the body’s oxygen and glucose to keep its cells alive. This makes brain work expensive. The brain tries to use as little energy as possible unless the cost is low or the reward is high. In the classroom, this is the right amount of challenge to keep students interested.
When learners are given the chance to take part in learning challenges at a level that they can handle, their brains put in more effort and are more open to feedback. When students work toward clear, desirable goals that they think they can reach, they reach levels of engagement that are similar to how focused and persistent they are when they play video games that help you learn.
Students may need feedback or scaffolding to help them see that the challenge is doable, but the levels of mastery are rarely the same for all of them. When this happens, we need to give them chances to be different and unique. These interventions include clearly scaled rubrics, small flexible groups for “as needed” support, and collaborative groups where students can “enter” from their strengths. You can read about these strategies in books and articles about differentiated instruction, which go beyond the scope of this article.
Through pre-assessment and feedback, the game Entry Point is a great fit
The best online learning programs that help students fill in gaps in their foundational knowledge use student responses to set learning at levels of difficulty that each student can handle. These programs also give corrective and progress-recognition feedback in a timely manner. This helps students fix their mistakes, learn more slowly, and see how far they’ve come.
The same can be done in the classroom. When there are different levels in a video game, the player can move quickly through the early levels if they already have the skills they need. People say that gamers make mistakes 80% of the time, but the most interesting learn games give hints, cues, and other feedback so that players can expect a dopamine reward and keep going. The learn games give the player practice with the specific skills they need to learn, without making them do things they already know how to do. This kind of game keeps the brain busy because the dopamine rush seems possible if you keep working hard and practicing.
When players put in the work and practice the skills they need to get to the next level, good learn games give them frequent chances to feel the reward that comes from doing so. The learn games don’t require you to be good at all the tasks and finish the whole game before giving your brain the feedback it needs to get a dopamine boost. The dopamine is released every time the game tells the player that what they did or said was right. The player gets points or tokens for making small steps forward, and moving on to the next level is a big deal because it shows how well they did. When this happens, players look for “harder work.” To keep the pleasure of intrinsic satisfaction going, the brain needs a higher level of challenge. Staying at a level once you’ve mastered it doesn’t release dopamine, which is what makes the brain feel good.
Bringing Recognition of Small Steps of Progress to the Classroom… and Beyond
In the classroom, the video model can be used with timely, corrective feedback. This helps students realize when they have wrong foundational knowledge and gives them a chance to practice and use the correct new memory circuits. Individualized instruction, assignments, and feedback, which let students work at their own levels of challenge that they can handle, take a lot of time, so teachers can’t always give them to all of their students.
We can plan units of instruction that take into account why the brain responds so well to video games by making sure there are challenges that can be met and feedback on small steps of progress. One way to keep each student motivated and working hard is to let them decide who gets credit for their progress. Students can do this by using different ways to keep track of their own progress toward their own goals. Through short meetings, you and your child can agree on goals, such as the number of pages to read each week (with accountability for understanding), moving up to the next level of multiplication tables, or getting a higher score on a rubric for writing an essay. Students can get free bar graphs from the Internet and fill them out as they track and see proof of their goal progress. In contrast to the system of waiting to give credit until a final product is finished, graphing shows the small steps of progress that are made as a person learns. I’ve found that it helps students who have lost so much confidence that they don’t want to risk failing again to start keeping records and making graphs by doing something they enjoy, like shooting free throws or improving their speed and accuracy on the computer keyboard.
Short-Term Satisfaction or Long-Term Goals?
Compared to an adult brain, a young brain needs dopamine boosts more often to keep working hard, keep going even when things get hard, and build resilience. In a future blog, we will talk about the brain’s prefrontal cortex and its executive functions, such as the ability to judge, analyze, delay immediate gratification, set priorities, plan, etc. When planning lessons based on the video game model, it is important to keep in mind that executive function circuits don’t fully develop until well into the twenties. Students learn that working hard toward a goal leads to progress because they can see it in their graphs or on their rubrics. This, in turn, makes it easier for them to fight against their young brains’ strong need for instant gratification. Students build the executive function of goal-directed behavior as they use visible models to track their small steps toward their goals.
When teachers give students feedback on their progress in small steps at levels of difficulty they can handle, students become more focused, resilient, and willing to try again and keep going until they reach their goals. Students’ understanding of what they can do to be successful grows far beyond the classroom walls as they work hard and respond to feedback. When you use the video game model to teach, you help your students develop the habits of mind that will help them reach their fullest academic, social, and emotional potential.