Uncertain reward

Sci-napse explores the potential for uncertain reward to improve students’ attainment, applying our new and growing understanding about how the brain learns to classroom practice.

2D structure of neurotransmitter dopamine
2D structure of neurotransmitter dopamine
Uncertain rewards are those that are partly determined by chance (or luck). The importance of ‘consistent reward’ in good teaching practice has been emphasized for some years but recent research suggests that’s not always true.

the pair of hotspots in the lower part of this image represent the increased activity in in the midbrain when adults competed to answer questions for uncertain rewards, compared with studying worked examples
the pair of hotspots in the lower part of this image represent the increased activity in in the midbrain when adults competed to answer questions for uncertain rewards, compared with studying worked examples
Insights from neuroscience reveal how offering uncertain rewards as part of a game can increase engagement with an activity. Uncertainty can raise levels of dopamine (a neurotransmitter) in the midbrain – which is a response associated with improved retention of learning.

The midbrain dopamine level rises between an uncertain reward being offered and finding out whether it will be received. This helps explains our attraction of games of chance, but also highlights their educational potential.

Some educational evidence already shows that offering uncertain, rather than certain rewards can lead to improved learning outcomes in adults and children (Howard-Jones & Demetriou, 2009; Ozcelik, Cagiltay & Ozcelik, 2013), but Sci-napse is the first large-scale classroom trial.