Unknown Unknowns: Student Interest and Learning

I think a lot about how to teach most effectively. I think a lot about what needs to be in my US History survey course: what do my students need to know? But I’ll admit it, I spend very little time wondering what students want to know. I should, because research shows students are much more effective learners when they are authentically curious about the topic.

Interest drives real learning. I know my students are very good at teaching themselves how to use new apps, for example. Why are old timers like me so slow at learning how to add them to our repertoires? I think the answer is simply because we close ourselves off to them, because they don’t interest us and because, for many of us who came of age before the Internet, adopting new technologies is not necessarily in line with our self-perceived identities.

On the other hand ( as I read quoted on Will Richardson’s blog), Russell Ackoff argued:

There is no way that the vast majority of teachers, whatever their training, can ever hope to match in their classrooms what students can receive at will from sources of their own choosing.

With this in mind, I thought about when my classes seem to go the best, and made these very rough, not-to-any-scale sketches.


As a teacher in an independent school, this illustration is different for me than it is for most. I don’t have to follow state standards like other American teachers and so my “system” bubble is largely imaginary.


If only the world were this simple. In these drawings I assume interest is uniform among the students and unchanging.

This raises the question, how do students choose what they are interested in anyway?

Of course, younger students (under 100?) often don’t know what they don’t know and might really enjoy. I didn’t know what American Studies was until grad school, a pity because I would’ve loved majoring in it. I didn’t know I liked the study of folklore until someone told me, a few years after I’d graduated from a different department, about the program at Berkeley. And so on.

What, then is a teacher’s role in student interest and curiosity? The obvious answer is that we should inspire our students. But I hesitate at the brink of believing I always know what it is other people should be curious about.

Jacquelynne Eccles, an educational psychologist who teaches at UC Irvine, has culled motivators of student interest from her decades-long research:

“Eccles and [her] colleagues argue that the perceived value of school work is determined by four related constructs: (1) the enjoyment one expects to experience while engaging in the task—intrinsic interest; (2) the extent to which engaging in the task is consistent with one’s self-image or identity—attainment value; (3) the value of the task for facilitating one’s long range goals or in helping one obtain immediate or long range external rewards—utility value; and (4) the perceived cost [often in terms of time] of engaging in the activity.”

Wait, where is “entertaining and inspiring teacher”? I guess there is a little room for them in the intrinsic interest category, but overall student interest seems to come from elsewhere. I am thinking now about how more homework, which has a higher cost (#4 here) in terms of time and energy, and therefore a tougher route to capturing interest and seeming valuable. There is a direct variation at work: the more meaningful it is, the longer we can expect a student to spend completing a task outside of the classroom. But the inverse is also true.

So, even if we care about student interest more than imparting our “wisdom,” it is apparently not so simple as finding out what the students want to do and then helping them do it. Teachers, like parents, create student interest through subtly linking learning to a student’s self-image (whether explicitly or implicitly and whether that image be in the present or the future) and through a teacher’s persuasive expression of a task’s utility value.

Paula O’Keefe, writing in the New York Times, writes about one study that sought to find a method for increasing “personal relevance” in the minds of students. I will quote it at length (in part because I couldn’t get access to the original study):

“Research by the psychologists Chris S. Hulleman of the University of Virginia and Judith Harackiewicz of the University of Wisconsin suggests that for most of us, whether we find something interesting is largely a matter of whether we find it personally valuable. For many students, science is boring because they don’t think it’s relevant to their lives.

“With this in mind, the researchers asked high school science students to periodically do some writing over the course of a semester. They randomly selected half of them to summarize what they had learned in their class. The other half wrote about the usefulness of science in their own lives, thereby making it personally relevant and valuable.

“At the end of the semester, the researchers found that, compared with those who simply summarized the material, the ones who reflected on its personal relevance reported more interest in science — as well as significantly higher grades, on average by almost a full grade point. This was particularly true for those with the lowest expectations for performing well in their class.”

What I like about this method above is that it respects students ability, with some guidance, to reflect and discover the value in their study. I also like how the focus was on learning, not dispensing informationThe process of reflection helps students to discover for themselves what is important about what they are studying.

Teacher responses to such student writing, especially when students express the desire to know more about a particular topic, offers the teacher an opportunity to teach to student interest. After study and reflection, students can now have a better idea of what they know and don’t know.

Another way to inspire utility value is through models. Teachers can help students envision the kind of knowledge they will need to pursue their interests as adults. This is where, Eccles argues, young people need exposure to role models “or images of successful people from all walks of life and in a variety of careers”  because young people “internalize these models over time when they are concrete, visual, and reinforced throughout their academic careers.” Further, “When students are aware of the variety of careers that connect to their interests and skills, and the education required for participation, they are more likely to be willing to work on current academic tasks.” This seems trickier, slower, and less direct. But I think it also offers a destination, a goal, however abstract.

Here is what I am wondering as I confront my courses for Fall 2016: do the methods briefly mentioned here represent the continuation of thinking “father knows best” and the teaching of the same material–if also trying to be better at stimulating interest? Is it old wine in new bottles? At the same time, how would one teach directly toward the interests of 30–or even 15– diverse individuals?

Should we let the students drive, at least partially, the conversation about what is important to know? What if a US History course began by giving groups of students good textbooks on the American past (Brinkley, Zinn, etc.) and asking the students to come up with 50 good “how” and “why” questions, at least one-third of which must refer to the era before the American Civil War, with the understanding that they would study the answer to their own questions? The first draft would become a lesson in critical thinking and reading skills–in how to ask a good question. The teacher would then select the most promising questions, explaining why and offering a first group of resources, and off the students would go on their journey.

Such a course would score highly for intrinsic interest and attainment value—and utility value, I think. The “cost” is based on how the subsequent course is structured. But for me the question that remains regards my relative comfort meeting the students where they actually are and trying to engage them in dialogue about the past and the practice of history, rather than reverting to my carefully constructed script and to my sprawling list of “things they really need to know before they vote/leave for college.”

Would they learn more if I gave more student latitude with topic selection? Would they remember more? Would their learning be more in volume but less of significance? Would they be more likely to enjoy the study of history? Would they forever miss fundamental information about the past? These seem to me to be essential questions.



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