Using Video Game Model for Motivated Personalized Learning

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by Judy Willis

Challenge is a powerful motivator when students take on tasks they find meaningful and consider achievable. The problem is that that sweet spot is rarely the same for all students at the same time. Lessons from studies of dedicated video game players demonstrate the power of individualized achievable challenges and ongoing personalized feedback. Neuroscience provides an interpretation and strategies for incorporating these key motivators into classroom instruction.

The Range from Boredom to Frustration

Boredom and frustration are frequent intruders on brain function in today’s classrooms as the result of a stress reaction. Boredom can come from instruction and drills that cover information students have already mastered or lack of personal relevance. Frustration is likely when students feel they lack the capability to succeed. They may have repeatedly tried and failed to understand or be successful previously regarding the topic or subject. (The frustration is not limited to failure to get a passing grade. It can be just as intense for students who repeatedly work to get an A+ not ‘just a B+’ on tests or assignments or assessments in particular subjects, but despite effort the goals are not achieved.)

Both frustration and boredom are brain blockers when they elevate stress levels. Deep in the brain’s limbic system the amygdala is an emotional switching a station that reacts to stress, such as persistent or sustained boredom or frustration. When these emotions intensify, because of insufficient or completed mastery, the amygdala cuts off access to and from the highest brain functions in the prefrontal cortex, leaving the lower, reactive brain in control. The learner loses voluntary control.

In these stress states, the amygdala becomes highly active (high metabolism represented on fMRI scans by increased oxygen use). When the amygdala is in this hypermetabolic state, information taught or practiced is blocked from reaching the prefrontal cortex and cannot be constructed into memory. The cycle can accelerate because as stress reduces memory construction from incoming instruction, the learner falls further behind, understanding appears unachievable and ultimately there is loss of confidence that effort can ever achieve desired goals. The resulting fixed mindset results in a spiral of effort withdrawal and school alienation.

The other problem when the amygdala is highly activated by the stress response is loss of social and emotional control because of blocked executive function flow from the prefrontal cortex to the lower brain. When the lower, reactive brain is in charge of behavioural output, the responses to stress revert to the primitive fight/flight/freeze survival mechanisms. In humans these involuntary behavioural reactions to stress can manifest as “acting out” or “zoning out” and students are further disconnected from successful, joyful learning.

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Achievable Challenge Requires Individualization

We can learn much from the video game model components of individualized, achievable challenge and frequent feedback of effort-to-progress on route to the goal. The most compelling video games are designed for players to progress to skill levels as soon as mastery is demonstrated. These games allow all players to participate at their individualized achievable challenge level. This sweet spot opens access to learning engagement and is key to motivating perseverance in academics, sports, musical instruments and other forms of learning that improve with effort and practice.

Before going further, let’s detour into the actual chemical reaction that drives perseverance when there is individualized achievable challenge and progress feedback. Dopamine is the fuel that compels gamer perseverance (and applied to classroom learning with individualized, achievable challenge is an equally powerful motivator). Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that, when released in higher than usual amounts, goes beyond the synapses and flows to other regions of the brain producing a powerful pleasure response – a deep satisfaction, such as quenching a long thirst. This is the experience of intrinsic gratification that we feel after making an accurate prediction, choice, or action, or achieving a challenge and receiving feedback that it was correct.

During the play of computer games with progressing levels of challenge there is prediction accuracy feedback with every move or choice made. There is also the opportunity for the experience the dopamine response to challenges achieved each time the player is moved to the next level of play. These bursts of pleasure drive the brain to seek the next burst, so gamers upon reaching the next level want to continue on playing even through the challenges increase and prediction failure is likely at the beginning of the new task. Actually, if the new level of play doesn’t pose new challenges, the gamer loses interest. The brain recognizes that there is no chance of the dopamine-reward response because there is no challenge to achieve – and the brain owner experiences boredom and withdraws.

The dopamine surge of intrinsic gratification requires an authentic challenge. To be a dopamine-releasing prediction, the brain cannot already be certain of the correct response. Once mastery is achieved, there will only be the pleasure response when new challenges are available. When a correct answer or response is known, (such as the sum of 1 + 1), there is no dopamine-reward release when that answer is given. This lack of challenge disengages students’ interest and frustration builds when they are required to drill repeatedly on skills or facts they have already mastered.

When learners have opportunities to participate in learning challenges at their individualized, achievable challenge level, their brains invest more effort in the task, are more responsive to feedback, and they reach levels of engagement seen in very dedicated video gamers.

This authentic challenge found in successful video games includes the player expectation that the challenge is achievable based on past experience, prior foundational mastery, and experience with the game’s available scaffolding. In the classroom this motivated state is achieved when students can participate in learning at their individualized challenge levels. If the pace of whole class instruction is perceived as unachievable by some or as too easy by others, brain effort drops as there is low expectation of the dopamine-pleasure response.

Mammalian brains are wired to reduce expenditure of effort and metabolic resources when past efforts to achieve a goal have been unsuccessful. The same brain blocks begin to withhold effort when students experience repeated failures at a type of learning task or subject. This is evident in students who develop a fixed mindset stop exerting effort after repeated failures achieve goals.

Goldilocks Zone

When learners have opportunities to participate in learning challenges at their individualized, achievable challenge level, their brains invest more effort in the task, are more responsive to feedback, and they reach levels of engagement seen in very dedicated video gamers.

The learning or assessment task must also not be perceived as so difficult that students believe they have no chance of success. As the learner’s skill improves, the next challenge needs to be perceived as achievable to engage learner’s confidence that effort can result in success. As Goldilocks would say, the challenge is “not too hard, not too easy, but just right!”

When the video game model is applied to classroom learning, learning is planned to take place in that Goldilocks realm with opportunities to progress as mastery is achieved. (Think Lev Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development.) Students remain engaged without the amygdala stress blockade and persevere because they believe they can, through their effort, achieve the dopamine boost of intrinsic gratification.

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Awareness of Incremental Goal Progress

Feedback in successful video games is frequent (essentially immediate). When video game players progress through a game in their “Goldilocks zone” with resilience. When a new level presents a new challenge the player does not go into the reactive stress state and withdraw effort. Past experience with the game links effort with progress. If the new challenge is perceived as achievable the player perseveres even through frequent mistakes.

In games that are well planned for challenge progression and frequent feedback of progress, players persevere even when 80% of their predictions (choices, moves) are incorrect. This low success rate is well tolerated because the player has knows he gets another chance right away. In that state, the mistake feedback is not stressful; it is used to guide the next choice. It is like playing slot machines that only pay off only 20% of the time, but the player has an endless supply of free nickels. Like the slot player, the video game player has nothing to loose from moves that fail because there is no limit to the number of tries he can make. In that emotional state, positive expectation of an eventual correct move, even at the low percentage, sustains effort.

For a student to be in such a receptive and resilient state for learning challenges, the same frequent feedbacks of correct predictions/answers and of ongoing effort-to-goal progress create the ideal individualized conditions. In the ideal learning situation, there would be ongoing effort-to-goal progress feedback about achievements made in progressive steps toward goal.

The reality of teaching is that we cannot provide the computer game continuous individualized challenge and ongoing feedback for all students. However, you probably are already using tools that provide feedback of ongoing progress. Here are some suggestions for providing feedback about ongoing goal progress.

Analytic Rubrics Lower the Barriers, Not the Bar by providing increasing learner awareness of challenges that are achievable and providing feedback of subgoals achieved. Rubrics provided at the start of projects or reports can help frustrated learners find achievable challenges. Students are guided to select the rubric requirement they believe within their achievable challenge range. They are reminded of the tools they have to achieve their goals. When returned rubrics show their progressive improvement in the category to which they dedicated increased effort, their motivation is rebooted by their intrinsic gratification of achieving a challenge. The student may not be at top level, the dopamine-response to progress will keep him “playing the game.”

Effort-to-Goal Progress Graphs can be designed or downloaded so students sustain motivation and effort through ongoing progress records on which they record (with your guidance). Students’s goal progress is graphed in relation to their effort (e.g. practice time) Through brief conferences, individual starting points and goals are mutually agreed upon. These might be number of pages read a week or increased mastery in the multiplication tables on which they are working.

Sample graphs: www.onlinecharttool.com

Your Realistic Achievable Challenge and Dopamine Reward

Creating individualized plans, that set students on appropriately challenging, goal-directed paths, is time-consuming and cannot be done for each student all the time. Find your own level of achievable challenge by considering what is achievable for you in terms of differentiating your students’ learning. Consider starting with one or two students during a unit of instruction where most students are at similar levels of foundational knowledge.

Write down in advance how you will recognize a students’ success with the individualization you provide. Look for less zoning out or acting out, greater participation, better moods, and more successful group collaborations. Take time to look for the progress markers so you can experience your own intrinsic satisfaction. Your dopamine response will motivate you to move on to the next challenge.

Dr. Judy Willis, former elementary and middle school teacher, is a board-certified neurologist in Santa Barbara, California.