The Power and Complexity of “Interest” | Toby Elmore | 3 Min Read

Developing a nuanced understanding of the origins and nature of interest can help educators craft meaningful and engaging curricula and lessons.

How might we develop curricula and pedagogy that engages as many students as possible on as many occasions as possible? How might we leverage the intellectual and personal experiences of our students to create meaningful learning experiences across a variety of domains and lessons? 

Image courtesy of Braus Blog

Hidi and Renninger’s four-phase description of student interest development provides a useful model for us to understand what is meant by student “interest.” Situational interest references when an individual, student or otherwise, experiences “focused attention and the affective reaction that is triggered in the moment by environmental stimuli” (Hidi, 1990; Hidi & Baird, 1986) and may last or may dissipate. On the other hand, individual interest references an individual’s ongoing desire to reengage with an activity or task.

Research appears to support a Vygotskian and Brunerian socio-cultural understanding of the importance of one’s environment and surroundings with regards to the development of interest and the accordant learning processes. As learning is fundamentally both a cognitive and affective process, the environment in which interest is triggered and, ideally, sustained, matters greatly. While random triggers for interest can produce transient moments of connection and perhaps deeper understanding, a more applicable question for us is how might educators create intentional triggers that spark interest for as many students as possible.  

One strategy that appears to be supported by the research is the development of curricula with a heavy emphasis on relevance for our learners. Our students should be able to explicitly see why what they study matters to their lives, both present, and future. This seems particularly significant to help students progress from “maintained situational interest” to “emerging” and “well-developed individual interest.” Individual and contemporary relevance can promote positive feelings within the learner (affective) and lead to the development of increased self-efficacy and self-regulation (cognitive) as, ideally, the purpose of their learning has been clearly articulated and linked to their physical and/or intellectual surroundings. 

A concrete step that instructors and departments can take is to apply the metaphor of windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors to their curricular and pedagogical choices. In doing so, teachers should ask the following questions regarding the materials and instructional practices they make: 

  1. Do I provide opportunities for students to see themselves in the work I ask them to do? (windows)
  2. Do I provide opportunities for students to see their classmates in the work I ask them to do? (mirrors)
  3. Do I provide opportunities for students to better understand the lived experience of their classmates in the work I ask them to do? (sliding glass doors)

This is not to say that the behaviorist advocates are left behind altogether. Durik and Harackiewicz speak to the ways in which collative features can serve as a stimulus creating the desired response of triggering situational interest. The shiny objects grabbing the attention of learners do not activate the cognitive processes of learners; rather, the physical appearance of the stimuli activates an affective response in those learners who might otherwise not be interested in a given topic. According to their study, bells and whistles can stimulate interest or curiosity in a domain for learners that have little intrinsic interest; a significant caveat to this is the fact that collative features appeared to diminish the impact of instructional materials in those with a high perceived valuation of competence in a task. 

What to do with all of this? The cynic in me concludes that this finding reflects yet another way in which teachers must somehow find a way to be all things to all people. We must know all of our students well enough to craft scope and sequence reflective of their personal and intellectual interests and develop instructional materials that build students’ perceived competence so as to develop intrinsic motivation. Yikes. The realist in me recognizes the impossibility of this. Instead, as educators, we must do our best to get to know our students and where they are as learners so that we may build structures to trigger situational interest and help students move towards individual interest, fully aware that our learners may not reach well-developed individual interest until well after we have sparked an initial situational interest. 

Toby Elmore

Toby Elmore is studying at the University of San Francisco School of Education.

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