Neuroscience Research Shows that Uncertain Reward Systems Enhance Learning


Educational programs that provide uncertain rewards are highly effective at promoting memory retention in the brain, says Dr. Paul Howard-Jones, a leading expert on the role of neuroscience in educational practice and policy.

It all starts with dopamine, a neurotransmitter (chemical) in the brain that plays a key role in retention of information, attention, and synaptoplasticity (learning).

According to neuroscience research, more dopamine in the brain correlates with a greater likelihood that students will remember what they learned. Dopamine must be present in the brain at the same time as when the information is presented to the student; otherwise, the information simply goes in one ear and out the other.

Therefore, the key question educators are asking is: How can we design educational experiences that will result in the highest levels of dopamine release?

Dr. Howard-Jones explains that offering uncertain rewards to students is the best way to stimulate dopamine release. Educational experiences that offer rewards on either a predictable or wholly unexpected basis produce a significantly lower dopamine spike, compared to programs that offer a 50% chance of receiving rewards for specific behaviors.

Video games are so addicting because they utilize a reward system that works in this unpredictable manner. The high dopamine release that happens in the brain when children play video games has been compared to the powerful effects of psychostimulant drugs like methylphenidate (ritalin).

What does all this mean for education? It means that the more we incorporate systems of uncertain rewards into educational games or assignments, the more engaging and effective the learning experience will be. For example, professors might consider providing unexpected bonus points for answering certain quiz questions correctly.

For a more detailed explanation, watch the video below from Dr. Howard-Jones’s presentation at the Learning Without Frontiers Conference, London, January 26th 2012.

Dr Paul Howard-Jones – Neuroscience, Games & Learning uploaded to YouTube by Learning Without Frontiers

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