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Engaging the Brain’s Reward System: The ‘Sci-napse’ Project

May 15, 2015

By: Paul Howard-Jones

We can all see the extent to which video games engage young people. Teachers often notice how willingly students respond to learning when it’s in the form of a game, and I noticed this myself when I was a teacher.

So ‘gamification’ of learning is certainly an area where insights are needed. And if we’re to take games seriously, we need to know what the cognitive processes are that bring about this engagement, and how we can tap into them for greater learning.

Learning in the real world is complex, and I think we need many different types of evidence to help understand it, including classroom data, teacher observation and brain imaging. Together, I believe these sources of data can provide a more comprehensive and thorough basis for improved teaching and learning.

One potential insight about learning games involves uncertain reward. The mantra of ‘consistent reward’ has often been popular amongst educators (and Ofsted) but neuroscience suggests we may need to turn that on its head.

When we anticipate rewards, such as food and praise, there is an associated increase of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the midbrain. Increased dopamine uptake in this area is associated with a faster rate of learning, and this response appears magnified when an element of uncertainty is associated with receiving the reward.

This provides a simple theoretical basis for learning games: instead of a point for a correct answer, offer the chance to win either 0 points or 2 points, depending on the spin of a wheel. Using such a strategy, we (along with other research groups) have shown that uncertain reward can boost emotional response, motivation and learning.

Studies suggest that dopamine ramps up between an uncertain reward being anticipated and finding out the outcome. This heightens the emotional response to the learning and increases motivation, and so should be good for academic attainment as well.

Introducing uncertain reward into teaching practice in this way departs radically from the traditional emphasis on reward consistency and may seem counter-intuitive, but it draws on our scientific understanding of how games ‘hook’ the attention of their players. The type of chance element or luck involved is a feature of many games, including those played by much younger children such as “snakes and ladders”.

That’s all well and good, of course, but there is still the question of how such an approach can become part of an everyday lesson. There are lots of questions like this that can only be answered by working with teachers. This is one of several reasons why neuroscience may only be able to help inform education if there is authentic collaboration between those who are versed in the neuroscience and those have expertise in the classroom.

The ‘Sci-napse project

Sci-napse stands for “Neuroscienceinformed Approaches to Science Education”. This project, which is funded by the Wellcome Trust and the Education Endowment Foundation as part of the Education and Neuroscience initiative, aims to examine the effect of uncertain reward on Year 8 attainment in Science. It is being coordinated by the University of Bristol in partnership Manchester Metropolitan University.

Sci-napse aims to test if uncertain reward can improve students’ attainment by applying our new and growing understanding about how the brain learns. Since the games involve continuous questioning, which itself may raise achievement, we will also compare the game-based approach against a standard quizzing or test-based approach. Both approaches involve all students answering and receiving feedback on questions throughout their lessons.  These questions encourage the remembering, understanding and application of new concepts.

In the test-based approach, students accumulate a fixed number of points for a correct answer. Findings from the sciences of mind and brain emphasise the importance of such testing as a means to encourage learning. In the game-based approach, the points available will escalate throughout the lesson and students can choose to game their points (double or nothing) according to chance. Insights from neuroscience emphasise how this type of game-based approach can increase stimulation of the brain’s reward system, accelerating the rate at which learning occurs.

At the same time, in other work at the University of Bristol, we are pursuing further neuroimaging research with adult learners to understand more about the underlying brain processes involved with uncertain reward and educational learning.  Insights from this research may also feed into the development of the classroom approaches as they emerge.

Personally, I’m really excited about the Sci-napse project – it is the culmination of many years of classroom experiments and lab-based studies. If this excites you too, and you work in a school in the South West or North West of England who might be interested in participating  (2016-2017) please do get in touch. Along with the other Wellcome Trust-EEF projects, I believe this research is going to help the UK lead the way in a fascinating new field that may benefit every student in the future.

For more information contact: Dr Katie Blakemore (

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