Skip to content

by Bart Everson

What is the connection between gambling, cocaine, and your classroom?

No, wait, I'm serious!

The answer is a little thing called dopamine, and it's released in the brain when we are rewarded.


Dopamine accounts in part for the thrill of gambling, the euphoria of certain drugs, the rush of adventure, and even — yes, it's true — the pleasure of learning something new in a college course.

It has to do with memory. Simply put, when dopamine is present, we remember; when it's not, we don't. We remember and return to the things that we find rewarding, the things we find pleasurable, the things that stimulate the release of dopamine.

So clearly, we want our students to have massive amounts of dopamine coursing through their brains as they participate in the classes we teach. How can we do this? By making the class fun, by presenting the content in an interesting fashion, by making the whole experience new and interesting and exciting.

Many of the best teachers already do this, of course. It's sheer instinct. If you are reading this post, there's a very high probability that you are already devoting effort in that direction.

Dr. Martha Burns uses the mnemonic NEAR as a key to successful teaching. NEAR stands for "New, Exciting And Rewarding." These are the keys to keeping dopamine levels high, which correlates with better memory and increased retention.

And, let's face it, learning is probably better for our overall well-being than gambling or illicit drugs.

You can read more from Dr. Burns in the article, "Dopamine and Learning: What the Brain’s Reward Center Can Teach Educators." Photo credit: Work found at Dopamine / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0