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Can computer games improve the ability to study?

Image shows activation of the network responsible for mind wandering when students try to study by simply reading notes and looking at example questions. This additional brain activity disappeared when study became a competitive game, and learning increased.

Press release issued: 8 January 2016

Computer-based games can have a beneficial effect on learning, according to ground-breaking new research. The brain-imaging study shows that – contrary to popular belief - technological game-playing can involve brain activity that positively supports learning.

The research, with students at Bristol University, is linked to a bigger classroom study which will involve 10,000 secondary school pupils across the UK – and for which participants are currently being recruited.

It may also provide a new perspective on concerns that some children spend too much time playing computer games – including those highlighted in an Action for Children survey of parents earlier this week.

Led by Professor Paul Howard-Jones, educational neuroscientist and presenter of Channel 4’s series The Secret Life Of 4, 5 and 6 Year Olds, the Bristol University study and associated classroom project are being launched at the Association for Science Education annual conference on Friday January 8.

The research team used neuroimaging to show for the first time how the ‘gamification’ of learning can reduce the activity of a particular brain network which is responsible for mind wandering.

When students tried to study by simply reading notes and looking at example questions, this Default Mode Network was strongly activated. The additional brain activity disappeared when study became a competitive game - and learning increased.

Professor Howard-Jones says that with careful design, the finding can help to revolutionise the way children learn in the classroom.

“Technology has a reputation for doing bad stuff to children’s brains but it’s important that we don’t demonise it. This is evidence that computer games can be good for learning, if we are careful about how we design and develop them,” he says. “For the first time we can actually see what learning through games does in the brain.” 

The 24 student volunteers in the study experienced 3 types of study session while having their brain scanned. One session was punctuated by conventional exemplar questions, another by multiple choice quiz questions and the other comprised a computer-based game in which they competed with each other to answer the questions in return for escalating points paid out (if they were lucky) by a wheel of fortune. The brain imaging experiment showed how they concentrated and learned better when studying as part of a game.

A full report on the brain study will be published in the open-access journal 'Frontiers in Psychology,' and will be available there from January 8.

The related classroom project (led by University of Bristol and Manchester Metropolitan University) is one of 6 in a £6 million research scheme launched by the Wellcome Trust and the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) in January 2014. This scheme aims to develop, evaluate and communicate the impact of education interventions grounded in neuroscience research.

Further information

Professor Howard-Jones paul.howard-jones@bristol.ac.uk or Cathy Farmer at the Education Media Centre info@educationmediacentre.org.