How the Power of Interest Drives Learning

| November 4, 2013 | 23 Comments
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In recent years researchers have begun to build a science of interest, investigating what interest is, how interest develops, what makes things interesting, and how we can cultivate interest in ourselves and others. They are finding that interest can help us think more clearly, understand more deeply, and remember more accurately. Interest has the power to transform struggling performers, and to lift high achievers to a new plane.

So what is interest? Interest is a psychological state of engagement, experienced in the moment, and also a predisposition to engage repeatedly with particular ideas, events, or objects over time. Why do we have it? Paul Silvia of the University of North Carolina speculates that interest acts as an “approach urge” that pushes back against the “avoid urges” that would keep us in the realm of the safe and familiar. Interest pulls us toward the new, the edgy, the exotic. As Silvia puts it, interest “diversifies experience.” But interest also focuses experience. In a world too full of information, interests usefully narrow our choices: they lead us to pay attention to this and not to that.

What Interest Can Do For Us

Interest is at once a cognitive state and an affective state, what Silvia calls a “knowledge emotion.” The feelings that characterize interest are overwhelmingly positive: a sense of being energized and invigorated, captivated and enthralled. As for its effects on cognition: interest effectively turbocharges our thinking. When we’re interested in what we’re learning, we pay closer attention; we process the information more efficiently; we employ more effective learning strategies, such as engaging in critical thinking, making connections between old and new knowledge, and attending to deep structure instead of surface features. When we’re interested in a task, we work harder and persist longer, bringing more of our self-regulatory skills into play.

Interests powerfully influence our academic and professional choices. A seven-year-long study by Judith Harackiewicz of the University of Wisconsin and her colleagues found that college students’ interest in an introductory psychology course taken their freshman year predicted how likely they were to enroll in additional psychology classes and to major in the subject. Interest predicted such outcomes even more accurately than students’ grades in that initial course. In general, writes Harackiewicz, “research has found that interest is a more powerful predictor of future choices than prior achievement or demographic variables.”

In fact, scientists have shown that passionate interests can even allow people to overcome academic difficulties or perceptual disabilities. One study found that students who scored poorly on achievement tests but had well-developed interests in reading or mathematics were more likely to engage with the meaning of textual passages or math problems than were peers with high scores but no such interests. Another study, of prominent academics and Nobel Laureates who struggled with dyslexia, found that they were able to persist in their efforts to read because they were motivated to explore an early and ardent interest.

How To Promote Interest

So what can parents, teachers and leaders do to promote interest? The great educator John Dewey wrote that interest operates by a process of “catch” and “hold”—first the individual’s interest must be captured, and then it must be maintained. The approach required to catch a person’s interest is different from the one that’s necessary to hold a person’s interest: catching is all about seizing the attention and stimulating the imagination. Parents and educators can do this by exposing students to a wide variety of topics. It is true that different people find different things interesting—one reason to provide learners with a range of subject matter, in the hope that something will resonate.

“Research has found that interest is a more powerful predictor of future choices than prior achievement or demographic variables.”

But it is also the case that interesting things generally share a number of characteristics. The research of Paul Silvia suggests that to be interesting, material must be novel, complex, and comprehensible. That means introducing ourselves or others to things we haven’t encountered before (or novel aspects of familiar things), and calibrating their complexity so that these things are neither too hard nor too easy to understand. Understandability is crucial: as Silvia writes, new and complex things are interesting “provided that people feel able to comprehend them and master the challenges that they pose.”

Research shows, for example, that an inscrutable poem is judged as more interesting when readers are given a hint that allows them to make sense of what it’s about. Abstract art, too, is considered to be more interesting when the paintings are given titles that help viewers understand what the artists may have had in mind as they painted. Viewers become even more interested in such paintings when they are given biographical information about the artist and background about the historical context in which it was created.

Starting A Virtuous Cycle

What counts as novel, complex, and comprehensible, of course, depends on the age and ability of the individual. One way that parents and educators can ensure that things are both complex and comprehensible is to make sure that students have sufficient background knowledge to stimulate interest and avoid confusion. The more we know about a domain, the more interesting it gets. Silvia suggests that one reason that growing knowledge leads to growing interest is that new information increases the likelihood of conflict—of coming across a fact or idea that doesn’t fit with what we know already. We feel motivated to resolve this conflict, and we do so by learning more. A virtuous cycle is thus initiated: more learning leads to more questions, which in turn leads to more learning. Parents and educators can encourage the development of students’ interests by actively eliciting these queries, what researchers call “curiosity questions.”

If curiosity doesn’t seem to be emerging on its own, there are ways to coax it out, as George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, wrote in a classic paper, “The Psychology of Curiosity.” Curiosity arises, Loewenstein wrote, “when attention becomes focused on a gap in one’s knowledge. Such information gaps produce the feeling of deprivation labeled curiosity. The curious individual is motivated to obtain the missing information to reduce or eliminate the feeling of deprivation.”

[RELATED: For Students, Why the Question Is More Important Than the Answer]

The simplest way to open an information gap is to start with the question. Cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham notes that teachers and parents are often “so eager to get to the answer that we do not devote sufficient time to developing the question.” Yet it’s the question that stimulates curiosity; being told an answer quells curiosity before it can even get going. Instead of starting with the answer, begin by posing a genuinely interesting question—one that opens an information gap.

Parents and educators can also promote the development of kids’ interests by demonstrating their own passion for particular subjects. A study of 257 professional musicians, for example, found that most important characteristics of the musicians’ first teachers (and, of course, parents are often kids’ first teachers) was the ability to communicate well—to be friendly, chatty, and encouraging—and the ability to pass on their own love of music, through modeling and playing well. Try sharing your own personal interests with young people through casual conversations, hands-on demonstrations, and special trips.

Keeping Interest Alive

If catching people’s interest is about seizing attention and providing stimulation, holding it is about finding deeper meaning and purpose in the exercise of interest. Caution is required here, however. Research has found that infusing a subject with meaning by stressing its future utility can produce the opposite of its intended effect. In one study, for example, Judith Harackiewicz and her coauthor informed students that math would be important in their adult lives. The intervention actually undermined interest in math among students who did not consider themselves skilled in the subject, making such students feel threatened and leading them to withdraw.

Harackiewicz and other researchers have found more success when they encourage students to generate their own connections and discover for themselves the relevance of academic subject matter to their lives. In a 2010 study, for example, Harackiewicz and her colleagues had college students engage in a writing exercise in which they were asked to think about the how math (and in an accompanying experiment, psychology) might play a role in their lives. In the math-related intervention, for example, participants were first taught a mathematical procedure and then asked to write a short enin, one to three paragraphs in length, briefly describing the potential relevance of the technique to their own lives, or to the lives of college students in general.

Completing this exercise led subjects to become more interested in the subjects they wrote about, an effect that was strongest among those participants who initially reported that they did not do well and did not feel competent in math or psychology. Harackiewicz calls this a “value intervention,” because it helps students see the value of what they’re learning. As employed by parents, this doesn’t have to be a formal exercise; it can be something you do in casual conversations. When you ask, on the car ride home or around the dinner table, “What did you learn about in school today?”, you can follow up with a question like “How do you think people might use that knowledge in their jobs?” or “What could that skill help you do?”

Parents, educators and managers can also promote the development of individuals’ interests by supporting their feelings of competence and self-efficacy, helping them to sustain their attention and motivation when they encounter challenging or confusing material. Weaker learners may need more of this assistance to find and maintain their interests, while stronger learners can be pushed in the direction of increasing autonomy and self-direction. The goal in each case is to cultivate interests that provide us with lasting intellectual stimulation and fulfillment, interests that we pursue over a lifetime with vigor and zest.

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