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From curiosity to interest: The use of effective pedagogy to develop students’ long-term interest

Written by: Helen Darlington and Derek Bell
5 min read

Interest is an elusive state, one which everyone experiences at some point but one which is often difficult to define.  A wide range of terms are used by some authors as alternatives to ‘interest’, including: attention, awareness, concentration, curiosity, emotion, attitude, and motivation.  All of these can be considered aspects of interest and are reflected in the Oxford Dictionary definition of the term, however, they are themselves distinct states of being.  As a result, it was necessary, in the context of this research, to understand the psychological aspect of ‘interest’ and the attempts that have been made to define, sub-divide and model the development of this construct.  The majority of the work in this area draws a distinction between interest, as a ‘transient affective state’, often referred to as Situational Interest and Interests, or Individual Interest, as ‘self-sustaining motives that lead people to engage with certain objects, activities, or ideas for their own sake’ (Silvia, 2001).

Although we all understand interest, it is perhaps more difficult to generate in others. Yet as teachers we are all trying to do the latter every day; a thought that raises many questions. In particular, ‘How, having triggered someone’s curiosity, can we develop this into a deeper and sustained sense of interest so that they become intrinsically motivated?’ and, ‘What are the factors that contribute to generating interest and how might these impact on what happens in the classroom?’.

A model of interest

Reflection on these questions was the starting point for the doctoral research carried out by one of the authors of this article, Helen Darlington (Darlington, 2017). The cornerstone of the research and the subsequent actions in the classroom was the four-phase model of interest proposed by Hidi and Renninger (Hidi and Renninger, 2006). This model, which was based on interest in English texts, not only provides clear definitions of interest at its various stages of development but also offers guidance on how to support the development of individuals’ interest. In particular, the model distinguishes between ‘Situational Interest’ that occurs when something leads to short-term changes in affective and cognitive states; and ‘Individual Interest’ which is ‘a relatively enduring predisposition to re-engage with particular classes of content over time’ (Hidi and Renninger, 2006). The challenge was to find out to what extent the model could be translated into the science classroom.

Interest factors

The first task was to determine students’ interest levels and what students believed would increase their interest in lessons. Analysis of data from questionnaires identified six ‘interest factors’ – learning from others, control, personal endeavour, puzzles, modelling and exploring science – very similar to those described by Hidi and Renniger as supporting the development of interest. The three factors that students believed would particularly increase their interest were:

  • Learning from others and working with peers. This did not necessarily mean only their friends, although it was important to the students that they felt comfortable with whom they are working. In practice, this meant not being too mismatched with regards ability or confidence.
  • A degree of control. over topics to be studied or the way information was to be presented.
  • Personal endeavour including an understanding of why a task is being completed, having some background knowledge to build upon and being allowed to learn information in different ways.

Importantly, the questionnaire responses gave insights into the views of different groups of students and those of their teachers. It was of note that there were very few differences in the responses of female and male students. In contrast, there were clear patterns in the responses of students from different ability groups. In particular:

  • Students in the ‘higher’ ability groups (more able) had significantly higher levels of interest than students in the ‘lower’ ability sets (less able);
  • The views of students in higher ability groups were closely aligned to those of their teachers but, in contrast, there was a marked difference between the teachers views and those of students in lower ability sets.

Developing interest

Armed with this information, Darlington worked with a small number of her colleagues over two years with the aim of increasing levels of student interest in science lessons by building on this new understanding of the students’ perspective. The teachers’ group agreed that large-scale changes to the curriculum / schemes of work were not possible but argued that by making small ‘tweaks’ to their own teaching over two years of GCSE study they could make a difference and increase student interest in science. Although there was a particular focus on the practical work (Darlington, 2015), adjustments to take note of the interest factors included:

  • Learning from others – varying the grouping strategies i.e. jigsaws, open choice, or based on a specific target;
  • Control – open choice of how to present work i.e. notes, diagrams, ‘tweets’ etc., choice of task / questions / context for application.
  • Personal endeavour – explicit learning objectives / success criteria, favourite word wall, highlighting prior knowledge i.e. through more focussed questioning.
  • Puzzles – mini-quizzes, bingo, hangman.
  • Modelling – role-play, building physical models, using analogies.
  • Exploring science – encouraging students to ask questions, i.e. write them on post-it notes during a lesson, write down a big question at the end of a lesson.

As an indicator of interest, students were asked about their intentions for future study both at the start of their GCSE courses and again at the end. There was a 23% increase in the number of students who reported their intention to continue to study STEM subjects. In addition, although the sample sizes were small and mean increases were not statistically significant, there was a marked increase in the Situational Interest of the middle ability groups rising from a score of 0.4 to one of 4.1 based on the questionnaire responses.

Taken together this evidence suggests that interest can be improved but that it requires more attention being given to the factors that are important to the students. Furthermore, it indicates that the key factors relate to pedagogy rather than being subject specific. Clearly there is more research required but these findings suggest that, while subject matter is important, subtle but significant changes to our pedagogy, can make a difference to students’ levels of interest.

Further Reading

Deci E L (2015) The relation of interest to the motivation of behavior: A self-determination theory perspective. In K A Renninger S Hidi and A Krapp (Eds) The role of interest in learning and development (pp. 43–70) New York: Psychology Press.

Krapp A, Hidi S and Renninger K A (2015) Interest, learning and development. In K A Renninger S Hidi and A Krapp (Eds) The role of interest in learning and development (pp. 43–70) New York: Psychology Press.

Ryan R M and Deci E L (2000) Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary educational psychology 25(1): 54-67.

Tobias S (1994) Interest, Prior Knowledge, and Learning. Review of Educational Research 64(1): 37-54.



Darlington H (2015) Increasing students’ interest in science: the contribution of practical work. School science review 96(357): 105–111.
Darlington H (2017) Understanding and developing student interest in science: an investigation of 14-16 year-old students in England. London: UCL IOE.
Hidi S and Renninger KA (2006) The four-phase model of interest development. Educational Psychologist 41(2): 111–127.
Silvia PJ (2001) Interest and interests: The psychology of constructive capriciousness. Review of General Psychology 5(3): 270–290.
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