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Reward in the brain

In this step we look at what reward means in terms of activity in the brain.

The left image below shows increased activation of regions in anticipation of both social and material rewards (Izuma et al., 2008). This activation is important for our motivation to approach, and it can occur when educational opportunities are made engaging, such as when answering educational questions in return for points. The right image is brain reward system when adults are answering educational questions in an engaging learning game (Howard-Jones et al., 2016).

fMRI from two experiments. The left image shows two yellow glowing regions in the subcortical regions of the brain. The right image shows two yellow glowing regions in the same subcortical regions of the brain and a lesser hotspot in the cortex.

Remember: when we are looking at images of brain activity, these are only ‘hotspots’ of increased activity. The whole brain is active all the time. This image is a ‘slice’ through the middle of the brain looking at the person from the front, the top of the image is the top of the head, the bottom of the image is below ear level.

Influencing reward

A large number of factors influence how the brain responds to reward and many of these factors vary from one individual to the next, including age (Van Leijenhorst, 2010), gender (Hoeft et al., 2008), our tendency to be impulsive (Joseph et al., 2016), as well as hormonal and genetic differences (Caldu and Dreher, 2007). Our experiences also interact with these differences and shape how our brain is connected, how it functions and even its structure.

So, although the same general processes explain how our brains develop and work, all brains end up being different to each other, and there are significant differences in our individual response to different types of reward and what engages us.

One should expect, therefore, a wide range of individual differences in response to reward within a group. Teachers discover what engages their students through learning about their interests, their existing understanding and through observing their response to different approaches.


Share a time when you had a student who was very difficult to get on task – what did you do to engage them? Post your example below.

Take a look at the different responses to this question in the comments. You may have used similar approaches with different students, did they work all the time?

Image credits

Left image from Neuron, 58, Izuma, K. et al., Processing of social and monetary rewards in the human striatum, p.284-294, Figure 5. Activation patterns in areas commonly activated by social and monetary rewards in the striatum. Copyright (2008). Reproduced with permission from Elsevier.

Right image from Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 16, Howard-Jones, P. et al., Gamification of Learning Deactivates the Default Mode Network, Figure 5. Bilateral activity in the ventral striatum (VS) when participants were responding to the question in the Games-based condition relative to the Study-only condition. Copyright (2016). Reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY).

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This article is from the free online course:

The Science of Learning

National STEM Learning Centre

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