Motivating and keeping students on task is one of teaching’s biggest challenges, particularly in today’s stimulus-rich tech environment. It’s not easy competing with smartphones, tablets, or computers as social media sites such as instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, Reddit, etc… light up screens, tapping directly into the brain’s reward pathway. “Likes”, right swipes, and new emojis give us a sense of satisfaction as these rewarding stimuli trigger the release of dopamine. The pleasurable sensations associated with dopamine make it true candy for the brain.
Dopamine is a critical neurotransmitter which, among other things, rewards humans for behavior necessary for survival. Food, sex, listening to a favorite song, or accomplishing one’s goals all trigger dopamine release and teach the brain that such behaviors are good for the individual and worth repeating. Dopamine is often cited with addictions, and so it goes with such a powerful neurotransmitter. Good or bad, the brain and body respond to dopamine.
Savvy teachers learn early designing lessons which allow frequent student success are more motivational than those with few success opportunities, and the neuroscience behind dopamine explains why such designs work. Each small success towards well-defined goals triggers a dopamine release, rewarding and motivating the student to continue their efforts. Long term projects such as papers, presentations, or other authentic projects are best designed to include measurable and achievable goals and benchmarks that motivate students through project completion. Remember that each small success rewards the student with a little dopamine rush; and that is better than any candy bowl.