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Video games have a mixed record in education. Many studies fail to find much benefit in rewarded learning with points and prizes, while others do show positive results in the classroom. 

For instance, one large correlational study of 27,000 students found that recreational video game-use had little benefits for academic achievement.

And, yet there is a growing cottage industry of video-game-based apps, even entire schools, based on the theory that gamified learning can make otherwise boring classroom assignments more fun.

Wander No More

Now, a new neuroscience study examines exactly how games can work to improve learning. A team of educational psychologists from the University of Bristol found that progressive scoring systems—where points get higher over time—can quiet down the parts of the brain associated with unfocused mind-wandering. 

Specifically, the researchers were looking for a brain region, known as the default mode network, that is associated with inattentiveness.

One group was quizzed on classroom material and given a range of points that remained constant. Another treatment group competed with their peers and earned progressively higher points toward a “Wheel of Fortune” type mechanism that doled out rewards with an uncertain guarantee. The chance of more rewards was also prominently displayed on the screen.

As predicted, the gamified version oriented children into more goal-directed behavior, decreasing the mind-wondering portions of the brain and maintaining higher engagement.

“Technology has a reputation for doing bad stuff to children’s brains but it’s important that we don’t demonize it,” said Paul Howard-Jones, leader of the University of Bristol study. “This is evidence that computer games can be good for learning if we are careful about how we design and develop them. For the first time we can actually see what learning through games does in the brain.”

As more developers dive into the market of educational gaming, this most recent study can guide them into designing systems that really do improve learning.

Read more about the study here.

Photo by Brad Flickinger

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Gregory ferenstein

Former Staff Writer for ReadWrite. I started my career as a freelance writer in 2009 covering business innovation, did peer-reviewed research on Silicon Valley,(2016), architected bills in Congress (2017), and ran economic field experiments (2019).