A Guide to the Science of Video Games and Learning: Generalization and Far Transfer

There is a wealth of scientific evidence that video games and other digitally-based brain-training tools can enhance learning. However, clinicians should be aware that while these tools are not the ultimate answer to transforming the human species into geniuses while preventing cognitive decline as we age, neither is it total bunk. Our reading of the research at Learningworks for Kids suggests that the truth is somewhere in the middle.

Obviously, we learn from our screen time. This might include hearing about simple facts from watching a documentary, learning about history while playing a video game, or improving one’s language skills while playing a multiplayer game with gamers from another country. Many of the “brain-training” tools improve the specific skill they are training and some show near transfer, so that individuals can apply the game-based learning to a task that is similar. Far transfer, or the generalization of the trained skill to a very different task, is more difficult and the source of much of the criticism of brain training and game-based learning. This does occur, but our technologies -still in their infancy – have a long way to go. Many of the critics of brain-training tools are attacking industry claims rather than looking at how to apply these technologies so they might have more wide-ranging and long-term effects.

My suggestion is that we work harder at using research-based strategies to enhance generalization and far transfer, rather than assume that our current technologies will unilaterally transform brains. Here are some broad suggestions about how to use video games and other digitally-based brain-training tools to improve generalization and far transfer:

  1. Choose a program, game, or technology  that addresses an identified weakness
  2. Insure that training or gaming gets harder and more challenging
  3. Find one that is engaging to insure the duration and intensity of training
  4. Go beyond the training to maintain any gains;  recognize that practicing the skills in other setting is what actually results in generalization
  5. Engage in complementary activities that broaden the brain-trained skills to improve generalization and applicability

I encourage clinicians to learn more about these issues by examining the primary research sources on this important topic. We have provided you with links and descriptions of many of the important studies:

Video Game Research

Does playing sports video games predict increased involvement in real-life sports over several years among older adolescents and emerging adults? (Adachi, Willoughby 2015)

From the abstract: We found a long-term predictive effect of sports video game play on increased involvement in real-life sports over the 3 years. Furthermore, we demonstrated that self-esteem was an underlying mechanism of this long-term association.

Keywords: adolescents, older adolescents, emerging adults, sports, self-esteem

Playing action video games a key to cognitive enhancement (Chandra et al. 2016)

From the abstract: Psychological tests conducted before and after the training [in which subjects played single player action video game], positively affirm that training improves cognitive abilities like reaction time and reduces stress level.

Keywords: action video games, cognitive abilities, stress, positive correlation

Learning by playing: video gaming in education (Lieberman et. al. 2014) in Learning by playing: video gaming in education, Editor, Fran Blumberg

From the abstract: This chapter focuses on the transfer of learning from video game play to the classroom… It then considers video game features that have the potential to foster motivation and self-efficacy, support learning, teach transfer, and enhance mindfulness, self-monitoring, metacognition, and problem-solving skills.  

Keywords: classroom, transfer of learning, motivation, metacognition, mindfulness, problem-solving

Cognitive enhancement through action video game training: great expectations require greater evidence (Bisoglio et al. 2014)

From the abstract: Focusing on studies that utilize strict experimental controls and synthesize behavioral and neurophysiological data, we examine whether there is sufficient evidence to support a casual relationship between action video game training and beneficial changes in cognition.

Keywords: action video games, cognition, cognitive enhancement, long-term benefits, no correlation

“No level up!”: no effects of video game specialization and expertise on cognitive performance (Gobet et al. 2014)

From the abstract: …this study investigated the effects that participants’ expertise and genre specialization have on cognitive improvements in one task unrelated to video gaming (a flanker task) and one related task. While the results of the flanker task were consistent with previous research, there was no effect of expertise, and the action gamers failed to outperform the strategy gamers.

Keywords: action video games, cognitive enhancement, transfer of learning?, no correlation

The effect of active video games on cognitive functioning in clinical and non-clinical populations: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials (Stanmore et al. 2017)

From the abstract: … this systematic review and meta-analysis was performed to establish effects of exergames on overall cognition and specific cognitive domain in clinical and non-clinical populations… Significant effects still existed when excluding waitlist-only controlled studies, and when comparing to physical activity interventions. Furthermore, benefits of exergames where observed for both healthy older adults and clinical populations with conditions associated with neurocognitive impairments. Domain-specific analyses found exergames improved executive functions, attentional processing and visuospatial skills.

Keywords: neurocognitive impairments, cognitive enhancement, positive correlation

RAGE-Control: teaching emotional self-regulation through videogame play (Vaudreuil et al. 2017)

From the abstract: RAGE-Control is a video game intended to help generalize relaxation skills to frustrating situations. The game involves shooting asteroids. The active condition requires youth to keep their heart rate at a relaxed level to be able to shoot… pilot results suggest that youth who participated in brief relaxation training and played the active RAGE-Control game showed significantly greater improvement in severity of anger

Keywords: children, adolescents, emotional self-regulation, relaxation, positive correlation

Pattern of video game use in children with attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder and typical development (Kietglaiwansiri andChonchaiya, 2018)

From the abstract: More than half of the children [80 participants total] with and without ADHD spent >2h/day playing video games rather than engaging in other age-appropriate leisure activities, particularly on the weekends. Participants with ADHD, however, had a higher rate of compulsive video game use than controls. Although video game playing was relatively prevalent in children regardless of ADHD status, those with ADHD had a higher rate of problematic video game use than controls.

Keywords: children, ADHD, video-game usage, game addiction, positive correlation

Brain-Training Research

Video game training enhances cognitive control in older adults (Angeura et al. 2013)

From the abstract: By playing an adaptive version of NeuroRacer in multitasking training mode, older adults (60 to 85 years old) reduced multitasking costs compared to both an active control group and no-contact control group, attaining levels beyond those achieved by untrained 20-year-old participants, with gains persisting 6 months… These findings highlight the robust plasticity of the prefrontal cognitive control system in the ageing brain…

Keywords: multitasking, ageing, older adults, prefrontal cognitive control system, persistent gains, brain training

Training sensory signal-to-noise resolution in children with ADHD in a global mental health setting (Mishra et al. 2016)

From the abstract: We developed a novel, neuroplasticity-based training program that adaptively trains the resolution of challenging signals and the suppression of progressively more challenging distractions. Training completers showed steady and significant improvement in ADHD-based associated behaviors from baseline to post training relative controls, and benefits sustained in a 6-month follow-up. Post training cognitive assessments showed significant positive results for response inhibition and Stroop interference tests.

Keywords: long-term effects, immediate effects, children, positive correlation

A randomized controlled trial of cognitive training using a visual speed of processing intervention in middle aged and older adults (Wolinsky et al. 2013)

From the abstract: 681 patients were randomized to (a) three computerized visual speed of processing training arms (10 hours on-site, 14 hours on-site, 10 hours at-home) or (b) an on-site attention control group using computerized crossword puzzles for 10 hours. Visual speed of processing training delivered on-site or at-home to middle-aged or older adults using standard home computers resulted in stabilization or improvement in several cognitive function tests.

Keywords: middle aged adults, older adults, visual speed processing, cognitive processing speed, positive correlation

New directions in cognitive training: on methods, transfer, and application (Schubert et al. 2014)

From the article: The aim of this current special issue is to provide a broad report on state-of-the-art research on new directions in cognitive training and to advance our understanding of the scope, the possibilities, and the mechanisms of training-related changes in cognitive functions and in the related brain structures.

Keywords: review, cognitive training, cognitive functions

On methodological standards in training and transfer experiments (Green et al. 2013)

From the abstract: Key aspects of methodology remain unsettled. Our goal is to highlight points of contention as well as areas where the most commonly utilized methods could be improved upon.

Keywords: review, cognitive training

Theoretical models of training and transfer effects (Taatgen 2016)

From the abstract: Production rules typically carry out multiple smaller steps, only some of which are specific to the task. The PRIMs theory breaks up production rules into these basic elements of information processing (PRIM=Primitive information processing element), and separates the task-specific from the task-general steps. What is called a rule in most production systems is an operator in PRIMs. PRIM rules operate at a smaller scale than standard production rule The central idea of PRIMs is that general cognitive strategies are learned as a by-product of task-specific learning. This principle can explain classical transfer effects, the effects of brain training, the limitations of expertise, and potentially aspects of cognitive development.

Keywords: cognitive model, near transfer, far transfer, cognitive training

Generalization of Learning – Near and Far Transfer

The problem of teaching for transfer: taking the low road or the high road? (Wilhelm 2008)

From the article: “Low-road transfer is learning that becomes automatic, that can be recalled and repeated and performed without conscious thought. High-road transfer is learning that is applied flexibly and creatively with mindfulness and wide-awakeness”. The article argues for educators to commit to high-road learning in the classrooms; although it will take longer and more effort, it reaps more rewards and leaves students with a more meaningful understanding of the subject.

Keywords: teaching, schools, classroom, learning, conceptual understandings, transfer of learning

Teaching Transfer (Perkins and Salomon 1988)

From the article: The implicit assumption in educational practice has been that transfer takes care of itself… Unfortunately, considerable research and everyday experience testify that… is inordinately optimistic. While the basic skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic typically show transfer, other sorts of knowledge and skill very often do not.

Keywords: teaching, schools, classroom, learning, transfer of learning

Putting brain training to the test (Owen et al. 2010)

From the abstract: The central question is not whether performance on cognitive tests can be improved by training, but rather, whether those benefits transfer to other untrained tasks or lead to any general improvement in the level of cognitive functioning… Although improvements were observed in every one of the cognitive tasks that were trained, no evidence was found for transfer effects to untrained tasks, even when those tasks were cognitively closely related.

Keywords: brain training, cognitive function, transfer of learning

Does far transfer exist? Negative evidence from chess, music, and working memory training (Sala and Gobet 2017)

From the abstract: We here present two meta-analyses assessing the effect of chess and music instruction on children’s cognitive and academic skills. A third meta-analysis evaluated the effects of working memory training–a cognitive skill correlated with music and chess expertise–on the same variables. The results show small to moderate effects.

Keywords: working memory, children, music, chess, training, transfer of learning, no correlation

Cognitive priming and cognitive training: Immediate and far transfer to academic skills in children (Wexler et al. 2016)

From the abstract: We evaluated the ability of computer-presented brain training games done in school to harness this neuroplastic potential and improve learning… These results provide evidence of cognitive priming with immediate effects on learning, and longer-term brain training with far-transfer or generalized effects on academic achievement.

Keywords: schools, classrooms, transfer of learning, long-term effects, immediate effects, positive correlation

Far transfer in cognitive training of older adults (Zelinski 2009)

From the abstract: This article reviews the literature on far transfer in training of older adults. Comparisons of the transfer outcomes of both strategy training and extended practice approaches suggest that far transfer has been observed. Outcomes for strategy training memory have had less success than extended practice studies in obtaining far transfer.

Keywords: review, older adults, transfer of learning

3 learning and transfer generalization notes

The article details elements that promote initial learning: time to learn, beyond ‘time on task’, and motivation to learn. It also examines other elements that influence transfer of learning, and how it can be applied in the classroom.

Keywords: transfer of learning, cognitive training, classroom

Cognitive Skills and Executive Functions

Aliki achieves primary efficacy endpoint in pediatric ADHD pivotal trial

From the article: In a randomized, control trial of 348 children and adolescents diagnosed with ADHD, AKL-T01 [digital medicine] showed a statistically significant improvement compared to an active control on the predefined primary endpoint, a change in the Attention Performance Index (API, a composite score from the Test of Variables Attention (T.O.V.A.)

Keywords: ADHD, video games, cognitive skills, executive functions

Video game practice optimizes executive control skills in dual-task and task switching situations (Strobach et al. 2012)

From the abstract: For two types of experimental paradigms, dual-task and task switching respectively; we obtained performance advantages for experienced video gamers compared to non-gamers in situations in which two different tasks were processed simultaneously or sequentially. This advantage was absent in single-task situations. These findings indicate optimized executive control skills in video gamers.

Keywords: action video games, executive control functions, young adults

Correlation between videogame mechanics and executive functions through EEG analysis (Mondéjar et al. 2016)

From the abstract: The main goal was to analyse how the frontal lobe of the brain works in terms of prominent cognitive skills during five types of game mechanics widely used in video games. The validated hypotheses were whether videogames can develop executive functioning and if it was possible to identify which kind of cognitive skills are developed during each kind of typical videogame mechanic.

Keywords: pre-adolescents, executive function, improve skills


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