Dopamine vs Homework

A former student of mine recently tweeted: “I think it’s cute when teachers expect all of their students to do all of their homework all of the time.”

From the mouths of babes…..

To every teacher who has ever asked…why aren’t my students doing their homework?  Here’s your answer:  You are fighting a losing battle with their brain.  Because inside the brain is the biggest homework sabotage you’ve ever met….it goes by the name of DOPAMINE.

Dopamine (in simple terms) is the pleasure chemical of the brain.  It’s the reward driven part of the brain that releases and provides feelings of pleasure.  It’s the feeling you get when you sit down to an incredible meal, the inability to put that book down because you’re so engrossed in it, the successful whoop of the kid who has finally beaten his video game level.  Dopamine is a “must understand” when you are teaching kids.

Why don’t kids do homework?  The simple reason is that it fails to provide a dopamine release in most kids.  Most.

Our brains are pleasure seekers by nature.  We’re addicted to the stuff.  Can’t get enough of it.  So picture your average 13 year old when he gets home from school.  He could do his math homework or write his English essay… dopamine….or he could play a few rounds of Angry Birds and see if he can beat those last two levels….(dopamine).  Well, unless some self discipline kicks in, dear teacher, you are about to lose.  The brain wants the dopamine.

Here’s a little brain psychology 101.  The front part of the brain is the one that controls reasoning.  It’s the part of the brain that should kick in and say….if you don’t get your homework done there could be some serious consequences!  Unfortunately in your typical 13 year old….this part of the brain isn’t activated yet.  And it could take until he turns 18.  The frontal cortex only starts to develop at the ages of 12 and 13 and for most of us it won’t be fully functional for several more years.  So when you yell at a kid who made a stupid decision and say, “What were you thinking?!?!?”, the actually answer is….he wasn’t!  Because the frontal cortex hasn’t kicked in yet.  For most teenagers, dopamine rules everything.

Some kids do in fact get a dopamine release from doing homework.  Their dopamine comes from the pleasure of knowing that their assignment is done on time, or from solving that math problem they just couldn’t get in class.  Or they look at their finished work and feel the pride of knowing they’ve done a good job and can look toward a good grade.  Dopamine release.  And you know who these kids are.  They are typically our “academics”, the ones who had the assignment done before your class was even over.

It’s often said around the staff room that it drives teachers crazy how kids will attempt a video game level over and over again and yet give up on a math problem in the first 30 seconds.  Why is there persistence with the video game and not with the math problem?  It’s likely due to the fact that the brain doesn’t care what the answer to the math problem is.  But this video game?  The brain has hours invested in it.  And it knows that when it finally passes this level it’s going to get the biggest dopamine release EVER!  Good bye math text book…..hello Call of Duty! But if he just put in one tenth of the effort he puts into video games into his homework……(ever heard a parent say that?)

What else is hurting you?  Another psychological premise that functions in the animal kingdom known as “risk vs reward”.  It goes a little something like this…..if we think that a reward outweighs the negative potential of the risk, we are likely to take the risk to get the reward.  However, if we don’t care about the reward, we don’t take the risk.

The risk in doing homework is they might miss out on something cool with their friends.  Or they might not get back to that video game.  Or they won’t get to any one of a number of other things that might be “important” like the Justin Bieber music video marathon taking place.

These are the kids that no longer care if they are going to get a 0 on their assignment, or if you deduct marks for being late, or if it means detention on Monday.  These kids have decided that the reward they get from the video game (or whatever other activity) is much higher then the reward of getting some sort of “grade” from doing the assignment.  Not to mention that since their frontal cortex isn’t fully functional yet, they can’t see how this is going to affect them later in life.  You can try to tell them until you are blue in the face that this could affect them years down the road but the simple fact is, the brain can’t reconcile that….yet…..

So what?  Well….the key to all of this is simple (I say with a bit of a laugh).  You must make the “assignment” the reward.  It needs to be perplexing enough, interesting enough, engaging enough that the brain doesn’t just need to know the answer, it CRAVES the answer (dopamine release).  I don’t think this is accomplished through assigning those 20 textbook questions, do you?

Now having said all of this, I’ll be honest and admit that I don’t achieve this every day.  It’s hard because what works for one student doesn’t work for the others and I’m still trying to figure this all out myself.  But what I will tell you is that when I have kids fighting at their lockers over whether Galileo was a better scientist that da Vinci, part of me cheers!  And then locks that assignment away in the vault of my mind as a success that I should recreate for next time.


If you can develop an assignment/project that will achieve a dopamine release within your students, you will get them and the video game controllers will gather a little more dust today.

Start making a list of all those assignments that really “get” your students and see what common factors they share.  I’m betting it all starts with the question you first asked when you introduced it.  Don’t give out suckers as rewards for getting the correct answer (the brain catches onto that quickly, by the way), make the question or the task itself the “brain candy”.  Not only will your kids get the dopamine release from solving it, it primes the brain to be more likely to pick you over the video game next time too!  Not to mention that the brain is more likely to lock into place exactly what it did to achieve the dopamine release in the first place.

For this of us in the business, we usually refer to this as….learning.




About Cherra-Lynne Olthof

I've been a middle school teacher for my entire career (which began in 2001). Like my students, I too am a life long learner. My goals include helping my students to achieve their goals, support them in their learning, and to encourage them to think "beyond the grade".
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2 Responses to Dopamine vs Homework

  1. Hi,
    I enjoyed this article. I have only one craving: some examples of that kind of assignments.

    • I honestly think there should be some place we can bank them when we find them for others to use and share. I find anything related to a perplexing logic problem usually grabs them right away. In Language Arts, anything they can debate – the more controversial the better! In Social Studies they seem to love debates as well. And I’ve found that using Fakebook to create historical profiles is really effective in getting them to walk in the shoes of famous people in history. My goal in the upcoming year is to post more lesson and unit ideas as I come across them. Not just mine but anyone’s! Stay tuned 😉

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