The Science of Interest: Cognitive Research To Engage Students and Foster Real Learning

"Librarians are ideally positioned to become cultivators of students' interests," according to Annie Murphy Paul. A journalist and author, Murphy Paul sheds light on the latest cognitive research on this critical component to reading and learning in SLJ's November 2013 cover story.

Illustration by James Steinberg

And now for some breaking news: Scientists have recently made a remarkable discovery. They have identified a force, commonly found in classrooms and libraries, that makes people think more clearly, understand more deeply, and remember more accurately. This force has the power to transform struggling students, and to lift high-achieving students to a new plane. It’s called interest, and the scientists who have begun to study it often describe it using the words of an authority named Dewey: Interest, he notes, means “being engaged, engrossed, or entirely taken up with” a particular subject.

John Dewey wrote those words in his essay “Interest and Effort in Education” exactly 100 years ago. Clearly, scientists’ recent realization—that interest matters, a lot, to learning—has been known to educators, including librarians, for a very long time. Still, familiar ideas can benefit from a fresh perspective, and the scientific study of interest has already generated many, well, interesting insights—about what interest is, how it develops, what makes things interesting, and how we can cultivate interest in our students. In the following exploration of the field, I’ll be drawing on the work of three researchers in particular: Paul Silvia of the University of North Carolina, Judith Harackiewicz of the University of Wisconsin, and Suzanne Hidi of the University of Toronto, all of whom are taking an empiricist’s approach to an educational phenomenon that is highly valued but often vaguely defined.

So what is interest, anyway? 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 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.

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; and 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.

Of particular relevance to librarians, interest has marked effects on the way we read. When we find a text interesting, our comprehension and recall are improved. Interest boosts our memory for single sentences, brief passages, and extended excerpts; the memory-enhancing effect of interest has been found for genres ranging from poetry to news, from short stories to long biographies.

Interests powerfully influence our academic and professional choices. A seven-year-long study by Judith Harackiewicz 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.”

Indeed, scientists have shown that passionate interests can even allow students to overcome academic difficulties or perceptual disabilities. One study of 11- to 13-year-olds who scored poorly on achievement tests reported that those who 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.

Given the galvanizing effects of interest on learning, it’s troubling that research shows students’ interest in academic subjects declines across their years in school. Interest starts out strong in the elementary grades but bottoms out in early high school, just at the moment when students are preparing to make choices about further education and future careers. Interest in academics is lower among weak students than among successful ones, meaning that those who are most in need of interest’s boost are least likely to feel it. Moreover, our nation’s education policy, with its emphasis on improving standardized test scores in a small number of subjects, may be eliminating exactly those experiences that lead students to discover and develop their interests.

That’s where librarians come in. Librarians are ideally positioned to become cultivators of students’ interests. Before I delve into the research on how to act as interest-evokers, let me address a few questions educators may have about embracing this role. First, is it even possible to elicit interest? As researcher Suzanne Hidi notes, “Teachers often think that students either have or do not have interest and might not recognize that they could make a significant contribution to the development of students’ academic interest.” In fact, research suggests that interest always begins with an external “trigger,” and that well-designed environments can make such a triggering more likely.

Second, shouldn’t students’ interests emerge organically and authentically from their own investigations of the world? John Dewey warned teachers against artificially “making things interesting,” and a long line of research has shown that providing “extrinsic,” or external, rewards for an activity can undermine students’ “intrinsic,” or internal, motivation to engage in that activity. But research shows that, done carefully, the deliberate elicitation of interest has many positive effects, and does not produce the negative results that educators may fear.

Especially for academically unmotivated students, it’s imperative that the adults in their lives create environments that allow them to find and develop their interests.

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

But it’s 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 students to things they 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.

What counts as novel, complex, and comprehensible, of course, depends on the age and ability of the individual student. One way that 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. Librarians can encourage the development of students’ interests by actively eliciting these queries, what researchers call “curiosity questions.” Suggest some questions that students might want to explore in their area of emerging interest, and prompt them to generate their own questions. For example, “How do you want to make history and change the world?” became the basis for an all-night scavenger hunt hosted by the New York Public Library.

Librarians can also promote the development of students’ interests by demonstrating their own passion for particular subjects. A study of 257 professional musicians, for example, found that the most important characteristics of their first teachers was the ability to communicate well—to be friendly, chatty, and encouraging—and the ability to pass on their love of music through modeling and playing well. Likewise, librarians can share their own personal interests with students through casual conversations or more formal presentations or displays.

If catching students’ 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 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 essay, 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. “Of course, you’ll probably need more practice with the technique to really appreciate its personal relevance,” read the instructions, “but for purposes of this writing exercise, please focus on how this technique could be useful to you or to other college students, and give examples.” Completing this exercise led students 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. Another way to demonstrate the worthiness of academic subject matter to students is to show them its social value, the rewards that come from possessing knowledge that other people need or want to hear about. This notion is at the heart of the “jigsaw” procedure, a technique originally developed by the social psychologist Elliot Aronson. Suzanne Hidi applied the jigsaw approach in a science museum, assigning each student visiting the museum an exhibit about which they were to become an expert. A collaborative project in which all the students were engaged required the contributions of each one of these “experts” for its completion. Students’ awareness that their expertise would be needed for the completion of their classmates’ project caused a leap in interest levels: while students spent less than a minute on each exhibit under usual conditions, in the jigsaw condition they spent as many as 10 minutes at their assigned exhibit, and often had to be coaxed into moving away. Librarians could easily apply the jigsaw approach to a collaborative project drawing on their libraries’ resources.

Lastly, librarians can promote the development of students’ 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 students may need more of this assistance to find and maintain their interests, while stronger students can be pushed in the direction of increasing autonomy and self-direction. The goal in each case is to produce young adults with interests that provide them with lasting intellectual stimulation and fulfillment, interests that they pursue over a lifetime with vigor and zest. Despite its reputation, there is nothing idle about curiosity—a truth that librarians, and now scientists, know well.

Journalist and author Annie Murphy Paul  has written the upcoming book Brilliant: The New Science of Smart (Crown, 2014).  

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