Connecting Brain Research With the Art of Teaching

The science behind what video games tell us about engaging our students in academics
BY JUDY WILLIS/School Administrator, September 2017

Judy Willis, M.D.
When I began a second career as a teacher after 20 years as a practicing neurologist, I was intent on translating some of the breakthroughs of recent neuroscience research into strategies to maximize students’ learning.

In my early days of teaching, I was surprised to find many kids were lacking in confidence and were not expending much effort in school. Some of my middle school algebra students “zoned out” during class. On later reflection, I realized some students grasped new concepts (e.g., percentages, decimals, size of an area), yet still progressed slowly because they had not mastered the foundations, such as multiplication facts. Others had failed to master concepts and struggled to relearn rote procedures each year (e.g., adding fractions with least common denominator).

Both groups had begun to believe they could not do math, and as their frustration mounted, their effort dropped. As a neurologist, I knew zoning out was a classic reaction of the brain’s stress response to frustration or boredom. When this happened, students’ brains were literally “switched off” from learning.

Stress and Learning
Where the brain processes information determines how successfully it is learned and how the student responds in the learning environment. The upper brain, particularly the prefrontal cortex, is where neural networks construct long-term memory and provide executive-function guidance for reflective choices and higher-level thinking. It is where ultimate learning occurs.

The lower brain comprises the more primitive control center that directs involuntary emotional reactions, such as the fight-or-flight response, in addition to largely automatic bodily functions, such as breathing and digestion.

After information enters the brain, it passes through the amygdala, which serves as a switching station, regulating traffic flow between the upper and lower structures of the brain. If stress is high, amygdala cellular activity rises to a level that blocks communication to the upper brain.

Neuroimaging studies of students show this hyperactivity in those stressed by fear, frustration (e.g., repeated failure to achieve success in a task or subject), alienation, anxiety or sustained boredom (e.g., lessons or drills on topics they have already mastered or that they see as not personally relevant).

When the amygdala is in this high-stress state, information cannot reach the prefrontal cortex to become memory. This has two consequences: Executive function networks in the prefrontal cortex are unable to direct behavior reflectively, and the lower, involuntary, reactive (and highly emotional) brain is in control of behavior.

With the lower brain in charge of behavioral responses, a student’s brain’s inherent response is to fight, flee or freeze. High-stress learning environments trigger reactions such as acting out, zoning out or dropping out (withdrawing effort).

Learning and Mindset
Mindset plays a crucial role in learning. If students’ repeated efforts to achieve goals and academic challenges are met with failure, the brain is programmed to withhold effort.

Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck described in Mindset: The New Psychology of Success the belief of those learners who do not believe their effort can lead to achievement, as the fixed mindset.

If students think their intelligence and skills are predetermined and unchangeable, they become less likely to persevere on chal-lenging learning tasks and fall behind academically. Without the foundational knowledge and skills to understand subsequent instruction, the gap widens further and they become even more susceptible to stress-related blockades.

A Game Model
Educators who wish to sustain engagement and perseverance in the classroom may gain some insight from brain research about what drives passionate video game players to persevere despite repeated failures and increasing challenge. These few concepts work — even without actual video games.

The brain is programmed to seek pleasure and repeat actions previously associated with pleasure. When a burst of the chemical dopamine is released throughout the brain, it promotes feelings of pleasure, a deep intrinsic satisfaction, which the brain seeks to repeat. The dopamine-reward response also reduces stress and increases focus, motivation, curiosity, memory, persistence and per-severance.

Achievement of a goal is one of the most powerful behaviors to activate high dopamine release. The pleasure response is so pow-erful that the brain sustains and seeks opportunities to repeat activities that trigger the dopamine-reward response. It is this neurochemical response that makes the most compelling video games so desirable to avid players. Their perseverance and resilience to increasing challenge and setbacks comes from intrinsic motivation of their dopamine-reward responses.

Incremental Gains
Video games are designed around levels of achievable challenges that get progressively more difficult (e.g., Levels 1 to 10). Players work on a task at their appropriate challenge level and progress to the next level when the task is mastered.

There is no pressure to progress at a specified speed and opportunities to keep trying are unlimited. Mistakes or misguided moves (temporary failures) are not punished by low grades or peer embarrassment as the player is immediately provided more opportunities to try again. In addition, the stress of sustained boredom is eliminated because players progress to the next level as soon as they demonstrate mastery of the requisite skill of each level of play.

It is this opportunity to progress at each player’s individualized achievable challenge level that connects so well with the brain’s dopamine-reward system. Achievable challenges are those perceived as not yet attained (challenging) but evident as within one’s reach with practice.

When players progress to the next level, they receive clear feedback that they achieved the challenge of the previous level. Neurologically, each time a player’s progress is acknowledged in the game, a small dopamine release occurs in their brain, sustaining their continued play and desire for greater challenge. To keep the pleasure of intrinsic reinforcement going, the brain needs to recognize both a new challenge and that it can be achieved.

Lower Barriers
The video game experience offers a guide for effective teaching strategies primarily by activating the dopamine-reward system response in the classroom. Teachers will be successful when they provide learners ways to build mastery at their individualized achievable challenge with frequent feedback about progress en route to a final goal.

The optimal learning motivation and stress-busting state takes place in classrooms when the level of challenge is in each learner’s realm. This means that students’ brains recognize that there is opportunity for the dopamine reward from pursuing a challenge recognized as achievable. (Think of Lev Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development.)

Teachers promote this optimal state by lowering the barriers, not the bar, by providing pathways through which learners can progress at their own pace as they achieve mastery. Guidance and frequent feedback about the progress students are making to reach their goals help support successful outcomes — just as video gamers receive frequent progress feedback as they move up to each higher level.

Promoting Progress
My speaking engagements have taken me to schools near and far, where I have seen classroom practice transformed and personal-ized. At award-winning Broadmeadows Primary School outside Melbourne, Australia, Principal Keith McDougall promoted the neuroscience of joyful learning. He put into practice his understanding, saying, “If kids are feeling anxious or stressed, the neuroscience tells us quite clearly that learning doesn’t occur because they go into fight-or-flight mode.”

To promote individualized achievable challenge and goal progress feedback, every Broadmeadows student chose a badge that signified his or her chosen learning goal. “This gave them the pride of owning their goals by choice and let the teachers know where to focus support and progress feedback,” McDougall says. “The outcome — students immersed in the joy of achieving and learning.”

Closer to home at Ignite Achievement Academy in Indianapolis, Ind., Principal Shy-Quon Ely has incorporated multiple brain-based strategies to personalize learning, including classroom practice, individual math and literacy fluency goals, individual conferences between teachers and students, scaffolding and enrichment.

Using components of the video game model when teaching helps students reach the levels of engagement, focus and perseverance that we see in those passionate video game players. Learners working at their achievable challenge level with progress feedback come to believe they indeed have the ability to determine their outcomes by exerting effort regardless of past experiences.

Administrators and teachers who are set on improving learning need to consider how they might reduce stress and increase joy in their classrooms. Neurochemical, neuroimaging and neuroelectric research support a learning model in which learning experiences are enjoyable and relevant.

Brain research evidence reinforces the need for classrooms to become places where students’ imaginations and spirits are embraced and supported.
JUDY WILLIS, M.D., is a neurologist, author and consultant on brain-based education in Santa Barbara, Calif. E-mail: Twitter: @judywillis

Additional Resources
These informational resources relating to brain-based learning were produced by Judy Willis.

» “Big Thinker: Judy Willis on the Science of Learning,” a video in seven short segments about the science of boredom, creating curiosity in the classroom and focusing students’ attention.

», a website created by Judy Willis, includes links to 150 of her articles, videos and presentations