The Surprising Impact of Brain Games on Learning

Playing computer games designed to improve cognitive functions can increase students’ test performance more than traditional methods, such as one-on-one tutoring, according to a Yale study.
1610-brain-games-study-workoutPlaying computer games designed to improve cognitive functions can be even more effective at increasing students’ reading and math performance than traditional methods, such as one-on-one tutoring programs and extended learning time after school or during the summer, according to a new study by Yale University.researchers. In addition, the study shows that using these “brain-activation” games as a warm-up or “priming” activity before working on academic content can better prepare children to learn than other strategies educators use to focus students’ attention, such as eliminating distractions and making sure there is adequate lighting. “Compared with procedures currently available to teachers, video-game cognitive priming can more directly establish internal states to facilitate learning, and make those states specific to the nature of the content material that follows,” according to the study, which appears in the September 2016 issue of Scientific Reports. Funded by the Roddenberry Foundation and led by Bruce Wexler, a professor emeritus of psychiatry at Yale, the study seeks to answer not only whether brain training is effective—a topic of debate—but also whether there are “far transfer” effects, meaning that students not only do better on the games themselves but improve their academic performance in general. The study also involved researchers at the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing at the University of California Los Angeles. The researchers tested their suite of four brain-training games, called Activate, as part of the regular school day with second graders in four Fairfax County (VA) Public Schools. Of the total sample of 583 students, 372 students used the program three times a week for 20-minute periods. The games, which adjust to each child’s skill level, are intended to improve executive function skills. Executive functioning includes focused attention, response inhibition, working memory, and the ability to switch from thinking about one thing to another. Measures of these skills in five to seven-year-olds have been found to predict later academic performance, and past research has shown that poverty and exposure to trauma reduce these skills in children. “If we have a new tool to help us address the achievement gap related to the poverty, that’s very important,” Wexler says. While the authors don’t specifically mention libraries, they do note that the program could be used “in learning and performance situations other than schools.” The researchers also created math and reading games to test the use of Activate as a “priming” exercise for students before they begin working on curriculum content. Finally, their program also includes a physical exercise component designed to work the same mental muscles as the computer games. The classrooms were randomly assigned to receive the “brain-training” warm-up game plus the math game or the warm-up game plus the reading game. The rest of the students were in 10 second grade classes in three additional schools that served as a control group and used neither Activate nor the content-focused games. They did, however, take the same standardized tests as the students in the experimental group.


Long-term effects

Comparing winter and spring scores on the tests, the researchers found that when students played the games over a three-to-four-month period, proficiency in reading and math improved more than among children in the control group. The gains in math were stronger than for those in reading, but the researchers suggest that this finding may have more to do with the reading tests being “subjectively scored.” The researchers attribute the results largely to the brain training games, which, they write, “engaged and trained a wide range of neurocognitive functions with the goal of using each as channels to activate neural systems that support executive function.” Activate is currently used in roughly 250 schools across the country, often in after-school programs. Private tutoring centers also use the program. Evidence of far transfer has also been found in other schools not directly involved in the sample. For example, supplementary data released with the paper shows that in one first grade class, where 95 percent of the children qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, the percentage of children scoring proficient on a Pearson math test increased from 19 percent in the fall to 92 percent in the spring after using Activate. In a control class, the percentage increased from 41 percent to 52 percent.

Using priming to improve academic skills

When students used Activate as a five-minute warm-up exercise before the content-focused games, the researchers found that certain Activate games led to better outcomes on the content games. For example, students did better on the math game when they played the Categories brain training game than they did after using the Spatial Working Memory or Pattern Recognition games. Pattern Recognition, however, was the most effective at preparing students for the reading content, which means that different brain-training games “activate non-identical neuro-processing systems, and that somewhat different task-sets are best for learning math and reading,” the authors write. The researchers created the math and reading games specifically to test the use of brain training as a primer. Using brain training in this way might be easier for schools than to find time in the schedule for 20-minute periods a few times a week, Wexler said. He noted that the brain training games could also be used with any computerized math and reading programs and that his team is open to collaborating with providers of online learning programs. Tutoring sessions in both school and public libraries, for example, would be ideal settings in which to offer the games, he says, adding that hybrid models are also possible because students can log in to the program at home. Amanda Schiavulli, the education and outreach librarian for the Finger Lakes Library System in Ithaca, NY—and a proponent of bringing gaming into the library—said the study supports the learning benefits of play. “I think this study could help to change opinions regarding games in general,” she says, “and help bridge the gap between playing and school-administered achievement tests.”

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