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Neuroscience and Student Motivation

By Gordon Eldridge, TIE Columnist

In the October 2012 issue of The International Educator, I wrote about how neuroscientific research often translates into unhelpful “neuromyths” when it makes the jump to the world of education.
There does exist, however, a new but growing field of research in “neuroeducation,” where researchers are attempting to bridge the gap between the results of neuroscientific research in the laboratory and its potential application in the classroom. This type of research should help prevent insights from neuroscience becoming lost in translation as they cross the bridge into the classroom.
Paul Howard-Jones from the University of Bristol has been involved in a number of projects of this kind. One of the projects has investigated our brain’s reaction to video game situations, and what insights might possibly be used to enhance learning in the classroom. In particular, research into games may possibly shed light on factors affecting motivation.
Several aspects of playing video games have been identified as possibly enhancing motivation. These include fantasy, challenge and curiosity. Dr. Howard-Jones and his team suspected that, to judge by the popularity of games such as “Snakes and Ladders,” “Tetris,” and online Bingo, uncertainty might also be a key factor in engaging a player’s attention.
Previous research had suggested that the desire for a reward releases dopamine in mid-brain regions, and that this process is also connected to the way in which we direct our attention. The amount of dopamine released varies with the predictability of the outcome.
Indications from research with primates suggest that dopamine levels peak when the likelihood of reward is around 50/50. Dr. Howard-Jones’ team conducted a series of studies of varying types to investigate what this might mean in the classroom.
Study 1
In the classroom environment it seems at first that uncertain rewards may not be so attractive. Research suggests that students generally choose problems below moderate levels of challenge, in order to ensure success. Part of the reason for this may be the implications of failure for their social status and self-esteem.
The first study attempted to investigate whether it was possible to introduce levels of reward uncertainty into a learning situation that might enhance motivation: 11- to 12-year-old students in Cyprus played a computer “math quiz” game. Before seeing each question, they had to decide whether the question would be asked by “Mr. Certain” or “Mr. Uncertain.”
A correct answer to a question from Mr. Certain gave a guaranteed one point. A correct answer to a question asked by Mr. Uncertain could receive either zero points or two points, depending on the toss of an animated coin.
• Mr. Uncertain was chosen 61 percent of the time.
• Boys were more likely to choose Mr. Uncertain than girls.
• Thirty out of 50 students chose Mr. Uncertain more often than Mr. Certain.
• The preference for choosing Mr. Uncertain increased over time.
• Students felt a range of emotions in relation to Mr. Uncertain, including frustration, but this frustration was not considered bad by the students. When asked whether the frustration with Mr. Uncertain made him want to quit the game, one student responded “No… no… It made me want to try my luck with Mr. Uncertain even more” (p. 168).
The researchers interpret the results as supporting the proposition that “a learner can find a task more emotionally appealing when an element of uncertainty is introduced that is not defined by their own ability” (p. 168).
Study 2
In the second study, 13- and 14-year-old science students played a game where animated dice were rolled. On a subsequent multiple-choice question selected from a random sample of 26 questions, the combined points from the two dice could be won if the question was answered correctly.
The students played in pairs. If the pair achieved a correct answer, they could choose whether to continue and roll again, or pass to their computer opponent. The risk with continuing was that if they rolled a pair of “1”s they would wipe out and lose all their points. The computer always answered correctly, so presumably, the students could learn from the computer’s answers. The computer also faced the same risk of a wipe out as the students.
• Pre- and post-tests showed that the students had achieved a good level of factual knowledge from playing the game.
• Students spent time discussing both the learning and the game. Discussions about the game often included talk of fairness. However, it was the computer’s knowledge of the answers that was perceived as unfair, not the loss of points through a wipe out.
• The uncertainty in the game seemed to be a source of hope for the students. It helped them against an opponent they saw as having an unfair advantage. In this context, giving a wrong answer brought no social stigma. It merely resulted in comments like “That wasn’t a wipe out—we did not lose anything” (p. 172). In fact, failure was generally blamed on bad luck and seen as part of the game, whereas success was seen as a “triumph of ability” (p. 173).
The researchers interpreted the results as suggesting that gaming uncertainty, though contrary to traditional educational beliefs that rewards need to be consistent, may actually encourage resilience to failure and increase motivation and persistence.
Study 3
The researchers now wanted to get a picture of whether the emotional responses to games were related to learning in ways that might support memory formation. For pragmatic and ethical reasons, this study was conducted with adults. It simply measured skin conductivity during games with and without uncertainty. The game was similar to the one used in the previous study, but the uncertainty was removed for one of the conditions. Conductivity was monitored throughout the game to determine what was happening at the point of answering the questions.
• The uncertain gaming condition increased the emotional response of the participants while they were answering the questions.
The results indicate that our emotional response to learning itself can be influenced by uncertainty.
Study 4
In this study, based on the assumption that dopamine levels affect attention and therefore learning, researchers were interested in seeing if they could predict dopamine levels at particular points in the game. In order to do this they made use of a previously researched phenomenon called positive prediction error (PPE). PPE is “the extent to which an outcome is greater than expected” (p. 178). PPE is connected to dopamine in the reward system.
The researchers set up a game situation where students continuously sampled four bandits. The number of points each bandit offered fluctuated, so that when students returned to a bandit who had previously offered a high point score, the situation may or may not have changed. The opposite was also true. A bandit previously offering low points could turn out to offer a high reward, triggering a PPE response. Students could win the number of points offered by the bandit if they correctly answered a subsequent question. The researchers were interested as to whether PPE situations could trigger two possible types of learning following an incorrect response to a question:
1. Would the PPE for the lost points help encode the correct answer for the next time the question came up?
2. Would the PPE for the possible points gained when the question came up again help them recall the correct response?
• The results in relation to the first question were inconclusive.
• In the second situation, there was a strong relationship between PPE and the ability to recall the correct answer.
The researchers concluded that PPE could operate as a kind of “ready to learn” signal during the progress of a game.
It seems that our traditional idea that rewards must always be consistent in an educational context may not hold true in some situations. In fact (it seems further possible), that uncertainty may actually support learning in some situations, because it (a) allows students to attribute failure to chance to some degree, (b) may therefore help remove some of the social pressures to minimize challenge, and (c) may therefore also motivate students to persist in challenging situations. This is possible because the uncertainty in the game situation can support learning processes through increased attention mediated by dopamine.
This research is in its early stages, and the researchers are continuing to investigate potential classroom applications. Current projects include researching the teacher’s role in mediating discourse during the game.
They are also focusing on gaming projects that move beyond simple factual recall, and look at the effect of gaming situations on deeper conceptual learning. Their approach will be to continue to move back and forth between three types of neuroeducational study: scientific, bridging, and practice-based. ?
From December 2012.
Howard-Jones, P. (2010) Introducing Neuroeducational Research: Neuroscience, Education and the Brain from Contexts to Practice (Chapter 9: Neuroeducational research, case study B: Learning Games). London: Routledge.

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