Neuroscience and Neuromyths for teachers

Professor Paul Howard-Jones | View as single page | Feedback/Impact

Myth H: Brain, games and learning

Teachers have always offered rewards (whether they are prizes, points or praise) for achievement. Usually, teachers strive to ensure reward consistency, e.g. that every pupil with a correct answer should receive a point. Yet researchers have struggled to find any relationship between the rewards offered and learning achieved. In contrast, there seems a strong relationship between how the brain responds to reward and the likelihood of learning.

So, if we know how the brain responds to reward, we can use this to promote learning more effectively. For example, “uncertain” reward generates a greater brain response than predictable reward, which is probably why we love games. It is important, however, that the uncertainty is due to chance – rather than a lack of academic confidence. Learning games in which pupils’ learning earns them the chance to win points can make learning more fun and more memorable. This can involve alternating delivery of learning content with gaming rounds. In a typical gaming round, every team answers a multiple choice question testing them on the content they’ve just encountered. Before the correct answer is revealed, pupils must also decide whether they would like to “game” their points. . Then, the correct answer is revealed and non-gamers with the correct answer receive their points immediately. Gamers who have the correct answer, on the other hand, then wait for the outcome of a random “game” event (similar to the toss of a coin) to find out whether they’ve doubled or lost their points.

Pupils make the decision to game or not at the start of each round and no-one, whether gaming or not, can win points unless they answer the question correctly. As the stakes are gradually raised by the teacher with each round, the lesson can become an emotional roller coaster in which the winner remains impossible to predict. Classroom research has demonstrated how entire topics stretching over several lessons can be delivered entirely through Teaching With Immersive Gaming (or “twigging”), with good learning gains and very positive pupil feedback . Related brain imaging research has shown that, in competitive games, our reward system is also responding to our competitors’ fortunes, so we can expect pupils’ neural reward systems to be stimulated even when it is their competitor’s turn . Free resources for twigging are available from