The Neuroscience of Motivation Goes to School

What do neuroscience and motivation have in common?

A new school year is underway, and classrooms are getting settled in. The excitement of Back-to-School has found an autumn rhythm as the real hunkering down to work begins. Students are still fresh and ready to learn, and their teachers are coming to know them.

But an all too familiar challenge looms in the near distance. Educators may at some point face the question of how to sustain student motivation and energize their engagement all year long. You’re not alone if you run into this, and help is at hand. Neuroscience research offers insight for teachers on how students can stay inspired, and keep their learning on track.

Motivation undergirds the effort students make in school work, how well they succeed with their learning, and how much they enjoy it along the way. Brain scientists have studied what they call “intrinsic motivation,” which is the satisfaction derived from accomplishment itself, apart from any outside recognition. And they have actually unlocked the biochemistry at the root of it.

A brain chemical called dopamine rushes into the system when we achieve a chosen goal. It causes us to feel a sense of satisfaction––and a reinforced desire to put increased attention and effort into the satisfying activity. Dopamine release also enhances memory, as well as the seeming abstractions of perseverance and creative problem solving.

This detailed scientific report describes how dopamine signals a sense of reward in neural circuits

What exactly will release dopamine, to work its neurochemical magic? In part, that depends on the person. For some it might be stimulating engagement with classmates, while for others it might be listening to music. What is true for everyone, though, is that the triumph of a job well done triggers this brain elixir that prompts us to want to do more.

We already know instinctively and from our own experience that even small achievements fill people with confidence and the wish to dive into greater goals. Daily DreamBox lessons can serve as a ready classroom tool to help students gain new math skills in fun ways––and gain new traction in moments when motivation in general may need a reboot.

A neurologist and former teacher describes the neuroscience of motivation and offers classroom tips in this resource-filled article

Ali Cunlisk

Marketing Coordinator at DreamBox Learning
Ali is currently the Marketing Coordinator for DreamBox Learning. She is a recent graduate from the University of Washington and is a firm believer in adaptive education. When she is not at work she enjoys Washington hikes, exploring new restaurants and of course hanging out with her four legged furry brother Max!
Ali Cunlisk

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