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As you may or may not appreciate, I’m a firm believer in two basic things:

Stimulating Curiosity and Interest…

1. There is no “secret formula” to helping students reach their full academic potential (despite what various forms of magical thinking – both analogue and, more-recently, digital – might claim).

2. If you’re able to stimulate a student’s curiosity in a subject, topic or idea then you’re going some way towards realising that goal of helping them realise their full academic potential.

As some of you may be thinking, this second statement seemingly contradicts the first: am I just substituting my favoured form of magical thinking for ones I dislike?

Well, obviously I’d argue “no” because, firstly, I’m writing this post and secondly I want to point you in the direction of research by Dubey, Griffiths and Lombrozo (2022): If it’s important, then I’m curious: Increasing perceived usefulness stimulates curiosity that lends some empirical support to the proposition.

While it’s no great reveal to say that if students are interested in the work they’re doing and are curious about its outcome then they’re generally more-likely to perform better in that subject. This doesn’t mean that students who have little interest in their academic work will not perform well in exams – there are various instrumental variables, from money to peer and family pressures, that may prove the contrary – but it’s probably an advantage for the vast majority of students.

The question, as a teacher of course, is how to stimulate in your students the interest in the subject that you hold?

The answer, according to Dubey et al, is through the application of a more-general instrumental variable, one that can be applied equally to all: “the perceived usefulness” of the information being taught.

Their study argues that perceived usefulness:

  • “has both personal and social dimensions“: in other words, interest and curiosity can be stimulated through he idea that what is being learnt has personal utility, a wider social usefulness (“to society as a whole”) or a combination of the two.
  • goes beyond generic claims of value or importance“: that is, it’s not sufficient for a teacher to claim or point-out general or abstract forms of information usefulness (“it’s something that’s useful to know“). Rather, the student needs to understand precisely how the ideas being taught are personally and / or socially useful.
  • The authors further argue that “the connection between curiosity and information-seeking makes interventions on curiosity especially relevant for educational contexts. Indeed, the importance of perceived utility (a construct closely related to usefulness) has been documented within the education literature, with studies showing that students’ perceived ‘utility value’ i.e., how valuable they think a task would be, influences motivation as well as the allocation of study time“.

    While the research has a number of potential limitations (in their experiments the researchers gave “explicit and strong” usefulness cues to students, they also failed to “explicitly differentiate between personal and social usefulness“, which means we don’t know which type – or combination of both – is most effective in stimulating student curiosity) it does suggest both “curiosity and information-seeking behaviour can be influenced by perceived usefulness, and points to effective strategies for stimulating curiosity“.

    The most-obvious of these strategies is for teachers “to stimulate curiosity by presenting information in a way that allows people to more clearly appreciate its personal and social usefulness” – and while these will generally be different for different subjects, both sociology and psychology are, in their different ways, ideally situated to take advantage of this connection.

    It’s my guess that, in some ways, this is what many sociology teachers already do – providing a personal and / or social context for the ideas they’re teaching – without perhaps, until now, actually having any direct evidence to back-up their beliefs and practices.

    And for those of us not thinking in this way the research may, perhaps, stimulate some thought about how we can make explicit and important connections between the work done in the classroom on traditionally dry topics like family, education and research methods and their real-world importance, significance and application.

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