Engaging the Brain’s Reward System

Evidence from neuroscience research suggests that learning can be improved when linked to uncertain reward.This project will test the impact of a game-based approach to whole-class teaching, which uses uncertain rewards. Games would be integrated with class teaching in science lessons to test pupils’ learning, with pupils working in teams. The project will involve a phase of development work with schools to understand how the approach can be implemented most effectively in classrooms. A randomised controlled trial in 69 schools will begin in September 2016. The project will be led by Paul Howard-Jones from the University of Bristol, partnering with Manchester Metropolitan University.

Why are we funding it?

This project has been funded as part of joint initiative with the Wellcome Trust to explore how insights from neuroscience can be used to improve education. You can read more about this here.

This is an innovative project that has been clearly shaped by neuroscience research, and it is now ready for testing to determine its application in classroom settings. Lab studies have found increased engagement associated with uncertain reward, and that levels of dopamine response to reward can predict memory for facts. Dopamine levels rise between an uncertain reward being anticipated and resolution in terms of whether it arrives, which explains the attraction of games of chance. There is some educational evidence that uncertain rewards lead to improved outcomes, however few studies have been conducted in classroom settings so far.

How are we evaluating it?

The project will be evaluated by a team from Institute for Effective Education at the University of York.

The main trial will involve random allocation of 69 schools to 3 groups, each group applying a single approach throughout Year 8. This project will test three approaches: games-based (questions with uncertain rewards); test-based (questions with fixed rewards) and conventional teaching (teacher’s usual practice). Schools will be encouraged to implement their approach in as many classes as possible. Control schools will receive compensation for their involvement at the end of the post-testing. The main RCT will be an efficacy trial: testing the approach under optimal conditions, with significant involvement from the developers.

When will the evaluation report be due?

The evaluation report will be published in Autumn 2017