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Can learning be addictive?

The internet can be addicting. People would start a quick search on an interesting topic, read on and find themselves reading more and more on topics totally different from the one which piqued their interest. It’s like playing a video game and most of us can relate to that. Once we start playing the first few stages of the game, we progress and finally finish the story of the game. It’s addictive. Now put that in the perspective of learning - reading and studying topics which get deeper and deeper, until it becomes addictive.

Vicki Kunkel of thinks that the so-called dopamine loop (yes, dopamine, that feel-happy hormone in our bodies) triggers our brain to get excited and makes us want to carry on with the search and the readings. Same case with video games - once we get hooked, we want to continue that “feel-good” feeling. That same dopamine can be triggered in learning where learners also experience that addictive feel when taking their courses.

Teachers can draw useful video game elements and incorporate them to their courses. Which brings us to the discussion of gamification. Yes, that ubiquitous word I’d like to jibber over and over again because it just makes sense. Why not gamify the course and incorporate missions and goals as well as side missions which affect game progress? And then why not also include bonuses, points and unlockables for every completed objective? Major game franchises such as Call of Duty, NBA 2K and Grand Theft Auto all have a rewards system which motivates players to come back for more and unlock additional items and secrets. Apply this in learning -  for example a statistics student who happened to finish a mission ahead of time will perhaps be given a reward which might be a shortcut to solving regression problems.

Keep in mind, however, that learning isn’t about focusing on the objectives. It’s about the learning process. I recall a couple of students who worried too much about final exams and grades. It just doesn’t make any sense. Yeah sure, keeping an eye on the goal of getting good grades is one thing, but keeping progress of what you learn is another thing. Students over-emphasize the endpoint of learning and that’s what makes them hate learning. Teachers, on their part, can emphasize the learning process by monitoring student progress on a daily, weekly and/or monthly basis. This is motivating and rewarding for students because they can see how well they are faring in class and what course of action they have to do to improve progress.

Students should also be encouraged to explore beyond their comfort zones and beyond what they’re learning. Typically, there is some sort of course syllabus and it is expected that the teacher and students follow the course and not extend beyond what’s in the syllabus. That’s a thing of the past but most teachers still do this. If a new interest comes out of the box, they’d say it’s not in the syllabus and will typically tell students not to learn it. Modern learning however, departs from the typical syllabus. Sure, there is some sort of lesson guide to monitor and track class progress, but that’s about it. Beyond that, the teacher should encourage students to explore past what they have on hand and never stop exploring and growing. Teachers should encourage flexibility to explore related topics that pique students.

The bottom-line in keeping learning addictive is to avoid unnecessary repetition and stop rote learning. Students constantly seek ways to “cheat” their learning experience. They want a flexible and dynamic learning process, one that will not only sustain their interest, but also keep their minds pumped with dopamine and make them learning addicts. Learning doesn’t have to be like a repetitive dance practice.

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