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Facilitating Situational Interest in Class

As lifelong learners, we are learning continuously. Along the way, there have always been some things that interested us, while other things didn’t. At the same time, there also have been some things that we didn’t find interesting at first, but later they appear intriguing because of the way they are presented.

Student falling asleep while studying. Image by Flickr user CollegeDegrees360.

Student falling asleep while studying. Image by Flickr user CollegeDegrees360.

In higher education, students have the autonomy to choose the field they want to specialize in for future study or even career. However, not everyone finds every class they decide to take interesting. How many times have you seen these in a college classroom: sleepy eyes, day dreaming face, little participation, passive learning mode, etc.? How many times have you heard students’ comments like these: “I love sociology, but the textbook is too boring for me to participate in class discussion”, “…the lecture is all about the teacher’s talking, which makes me want to sleep”, “I’m still not interested in my statistics class, which is required for my marketing major, because I don’t see the connection between the statistics knowledge I’ve learned in class to the field”?

Interest is not a new topic for educators, many of whom have been working on raising students’ interest in learning specific knowledge for approximately 100 years. There are two main types of interest in educational research: individual and situational. Individual interest persists over time, has enduring personal value, is activated internally, and is topic-specific.

Situational interest is spontaneous, transitory, temporary, and usually triggered by the context. It is relatively more amenable to change than individual interest. Therefore, educators focus a lot on how to increase their situational interest in and outside the classroom, which will be likely to lead to individual interest under proper guidance. According to the research and my own experience as a graduate student and tutor, many of the following factors that promote situational interest and learning will help you rethink what you want to do to facilitate students’ interest in the course.

An image in a psychology textbook, explaining "low self-esteem". Image by Flickr user Post Memes.

An image in a psychology textbook, explaining “low self-esteem”. Image by Flickr user Post Memes.

Text-based

Vivid instructional materials that include imagery, concreteness, unexpectedness, suspense, humor and the author’s voice appear to increase situational interest in a text and enhance recall and learning. Wade et al.’s experiment showed that college students remembered text segments about dinosaurs that were narrated with images and incorporated humor better than texts that were technical and expository.

In addition, texts that are well organized and easy to follow are more interesting than less coherent texts because it’s easier to understand how the main idea is elaborated.

Task-based

Changing the way students engage in a task (e.g., active involvement such as hands-on activities), helping them set cognitive goals (e.g., get the main idea of a long paragraph instead of memorize every detail), or giving them reasons (e.g., the value of the project) to persist in a task, will increase situational interest by selective attention or a greater desire to find the task interesting.

Many studies suggest that giving meaningful choice positively affects perceived competence, a preference for greater task difficulty, overall liking, and a greater willingness to work on the task. In short, choice increases interest and task engagement. In the task, students’ greater control and autonomy raise their intrinsic interest in a task and lead to greater conceptual learning.

Social support and connections (e.g., group work, working with friends, parents, or teachers) are also key for promoting situational interest in a task. For example, asking students to explain the knowledge to other students or demonstrate their project to their parents makes them more motivated and focused. Students find themselves more interested in a task while in a classroom with a teacher who communicates well and expresses his/her passion for and expertise in the subject matter. Also, instructors who are perceived as friendly, encouraging, enthusiastic, and socially and emotionally connected with students can significantly increase situational interest.

Knowledge-based

Many educators see the importance of course connections to students’ real life and background knowledge. Studies show that knowledge is related to interest and learning when students possess an adequate degree of prior knowledge or when the instructional material provides that knowledge; meanwhile, when general domain knowledge is absent, it interferes with learning. Surprisingly, topic familiarity is unrelated to interest as long as sufficient information including prior knowledge information is provided. Researchers found a strong positive correlation between informational completeness and situational interest, which does not require the reader to be familiar with the topic.

In addition, the awareness of one’s own lack of knowledge stimulates curiosity to find out more about the topic, which triggers situational interest. Thus, exposing students to a novel and ambiguous problem in a class causes a feeling of deprivation that lead to an increased degree of curiosity picked up by the measure of situational interest. Also, students are more motivated to process interest they value, so highlighting the relevance and value of information and skills for them will increase situational interest.

To sum it all up, situational interest plays a critical role in learning. No one spontaneously likes to learn things that do not interest them even though it is in their specialized area. When facing students, educators may want to make some changes from personality and classroom presentation style to teaching strategies, expertise, and instructional materials; thus, more and more students may express their situational interest, and even their individual interest, in the course and be largely motivated to explore further in the field.

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