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…

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Toby Elmore

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