Dopamine and Learning

by Martha Burns PhD

Does this ever happen to you as a teacher? You present information in a great deal of detail, covering the content over several days. You are delighted with the way the information flows, you are very pleased with the organization of the content, and the examples you provide are quite clear.? Then, a day or two later, one of the students raises her hand and asks you if you will explain that very content. It is as though she had not been present during your lengthy devotion to that topic. You know she was present, you saw her sitting there listening intently, so how could it be that none of it sank in?

A big part of the answer to why some of your students hold onto the information you teach and others do not has to do with a little chemical in the brain that has to be present for a child (or adult) to retain information. That chemical is called ?dopamine?. You may have heard about dopamine because it is the chemical that is released in the brain when we are rewarded. It is also released when a person gambles and wins (or loses), takes certain addictive drugs like cocaine, or just engages in a new exciting adventure.? For many of your students and many of us as adults, learning about new things is an adventure and very rewarding, and dopamine levels increase in the brain to help us retain that new information. But for some learners, if dopamine levels are low, the new information literally goes in and out of the brain and is lost.

I like to refer to dopamine as the ?save button? in the brain. When dopamine is present during an event or experience, we remember it; when it is absent, nothing seems to stick.?? There are actually some regions of the brain that increase our motivation and interest in activities. Often referred to collectively as the?reward center,?the regions are activated by dopamine. And the more motivated and interested we are in an activity the more dopamine is released and the better we remember it.?? The reward center helps us to stay focused and repeat activities that were reinforced through positive outcomes ? whether it is finding and returning to a location where good things happened in our life or just remembering interesting information.??? So as a teacher the next question you might ask is, ?How do I increase dopamine levels in my students? brains so that they are motivated to learn and remember what I teach??? And, believe it or not, the answer is pretty straight forward ? ?make learning NEW, EXCITING, and REWARDING.??? I call this the ?how? of teaching and it is something you actually already know very well.

The importance of NEW in learning is something all teachers think about every time we plan a lesson.? That is why you love it when your school has NEW text book adoptions ? the novelty allows you to teach the information in a new way ? which generates enthusiasm on your part and the students. To keep fresh, all teachers try to come up with novel ways to present information and new technology to help present content in a different way whether we are fortunate enough to get new textbooks and technology or not. Increase NOVELTY in a classroom and you increase the dopamine levels of your students.

The importance of EXCITING in learning is why as teachers we rack our brains at night trying to think up adventuresome ways to keep our students interested in the content. To make the content exciting, I know primary teachers who get their students to act out letters or new vocabulary, middle school math teachers who teach area computation by asking students to determine the amount of paint that would be needed to redecorate their bedroom, high school teachers who teach students physics by asking them to build a bridge with nothing more than toothpicks. All of these represent what we were taught were teaching methods — ways teachers devise to keep the energy and excitement level up in a classroom.? Increase excitement in a classroom and you increase dopamine levels of your students.

The importance of REINFORCEMENT in learning is self-evident.? All of us are very aware of the power of reinforcement. Some of us try to encourage our husbands (or wives) to take on more household responsibilities by using not too well disguised reinforcement ? ?My, you are really great at washing the dishes, the kitchen always shines after you are finished.?? But reinforcement is actually one of the best ways to increase dopamine levels and assure retention of information. Try this tomorrow in your class. Ask a question that most of the students would not necessarily know, then seek out a student who normally does not raise their hand or try to respond, guide the student so he answers the question correctly in front of the entire class, then reward the student with a compliment. A day or so later, ask that same student the question again. What you will find is that student will remember that information even though he might be ordinarily very poor at attending in class or forgetful.? Carefully used, reinforcement is one of the greatest memory enhancers in the brain because it is so powerful at increasing dopamine.

I like to say, successful teaching is not difficult and is very NEAR ??New,Exciting And Rewarding?because those are the keys to keeping dopamine levels high in the brain. And by the way, keeping your teaching New, Exciting and Rewarding does not just increase your students? dopamine levels, it increases yours as well.?? Coming up with new fresh ways to present the information, making the content interesting and exciting whenever possible, and rewarding all of your students for their successes in your classroom keeps motivation and? attention levels high and promotes retention. Dopamine can be addictive — our goal as teachers is to get our students addicted to learning.


Want to learn more about how the brain learns???Click here?to view this free recorded webinar with Dr. Martha Burns.


For further reading:

Dopamine: the rewarding years

Changes in Cortical Dopamine D1 Receptor Binding Associated with Cognitive Training

Related reading:

Lifelong Learning and the Plastic Brain

Using the Power of Optimal Timing to Improve the Brain?s Ability to Learn