As you may have noticed if you’ve looked at our latest Psychology releases, we’ve recently turned our collective attention towards the topic of metacognition which, in basic terms, involves understanding how and why students learn.
Or, equally-importantly, why they fail to learn.
Either way, the first batch of films in what promises to be a long-running series that you probably won’t be bothered to explore include topics as diverse as The Power of Habits, the relationship between Sleep and Memory and how to take more-effective and memorable notes using the Cornell Method.
Next up we’ve decided to look at the role played by curiosity in the learning process and one of the things research has shown about curiosity, apart from its widely-reported role in the killing of cats, is that the more curious we are about something, the more involved we become in trying to understand it. And it’s not just that we become more-interested in whatever we’re studying. Curiosity makes it easier to learn, so it actually makes us better at learning it. Not just in the short term but over a much longer period too.
It does this, according to Gruber et al (2014) by creating increased activity in the hippocampus, a part of the brain that plays a central role in forming and retrieving memories (think of it as a kind of all-purpose memory manager). In addition, it creates increased activity in the areas of the brain associated with rewards.
Both of these increases are associated with the neurotransmitter dopamine. This not only facilitates memory retrieval in the hippocampus, it’s also associated with things like pleasure, reward and motivation. So not only does curiosity stimulate our memory, it makes us feel good while it’s doing it.
Which is a bonus.
Even better is the fact it’s possible to create curiosity in a couple of ways:
The first involves students creating their own sense of curiosity through an understanding of the personal and social importance of the subjects they’re studying, something that should be particularly easy to develop for sociologists, psychologists and criminologists. This is something we looked at in a previous post: If It’s Important, Then I’m Curious.
The second involves orientating your teaching towards explicitly encouraging curiosity through the way a subject is taught, an idea we’ve noted previously in terms of Creating Curious Presentations, and which we can develop a little more here.
Puzzles and Mysteries
A proven way to create curious students is by encouraging them to approach their studies as mysteries to be unlocked or puzzles to be solved. In broad terms this means helping them develop a questioning approach to the things they’re studying by creating the structures within which they can work to develop their inner Sherlock.
The idea here is that you deliberately introduce an element of mystery into your teaching by setting your students puzzles that need to be solved. This isn’t as difficult or as time-consuming as it first sounds because the basic template involves two deceptively simple steps:
- Create a scenario that involves some sort of mystery.
- Make your students explore possible solutions: as a class (with your help), in small groups or individually.
The mystery can be simple – such as starting with a question like “What is..,” (a family, crime or whatever) that you can walk your students through – or as complex as you like. We can illustrate an example of the latter using a piece of recent research by Hu and Denier (2023) on changing sexual identities.
Sexual Identity: A Complex Mystery
In this particular example the underlying context is to examine the notion of sexual identities, such as heterosexuality, homosexuality and bisexuality, in terms of their continuity and change. The wider context here is to examine the proposition that heterosexual and non-heterosexual identities are just as socially-constructed as any other type of identity.
Setting the Scene
Sexual identities are generally seen as being reasonably fluid in the teenage / young adult years before settling down in adulthood and becoming relatively “fixed” by the time old age rolls around. Sexual identity, in other words, is conventionally seen as being most fluid and open to social influence among young people (roughly 16 – 24) and less flexible or open to influence the older one gets.
Hu and Denier’s research however, demonstrates that sexual identity in the UK – considered in terms of an “individuals’ sexual orientation identification” – is actually more mobile and open to social influence than previously believed. As they note:
“Sexual identity mobility follows a convex pattern over the life course, with higher mobility rates at the two ends than in the middle of the age spectrum”.
They found changes to individual sexual identities, while relatively common among the young are also much more common than previously thought among those aged 65+. Identify changes were also more apparent among women, ethnic minorities and those with lower levels of education, particularly those who never entered higher education.
Overall the researchers found 1-in-15 people or around 7% of the UK population “changed their sexual identity over a six-year period”.
If you want to give your students a summary of the research’s main findings, sexual identity mobility:
- is highest amongst young (16 – 24) adults (8% change their sexual identity) and older (65+) adults (7.5%).
- is around 5% – 6% for 25-64 year olds.
- is Iess-likely for men (5.7%) than for women (6.3%).
- is 3x more-likely for non-white ethnicities (15%) than white ethnic groups (5.0%).
- occurs more-often among the lowest educated.
Explaining the Facts
The next step in the process is to consider how we explain some or all of the above. At the very least you should probably be looking to your students to explain the “convex pattern of sexual identity mobility over the life course” because this tells us a great deal about how sexual identities, as with their class, age, gender and ethnic counterparts, are socially constructed. This social construction is, of course, something worth exploring at a later point.
How you do this is, of course, up to you and how you want to organise your class. However, if you want to suggest possible lines of enquiry you might want to point to ideas like:
- Normative pressures to conform to traditional forms of sexual identity, coming from the workplace, family and friends, are stronger in mid-life.
- Among the elderly the loss of a sexual partner may result in a rethink about sexual identity as social bonds are broken.
- A relaxation in sexual norms and levels of social acceptance for identity differences over the life course may result in those formerly identifying with one form of sexual identity (particularly heterosexuality) feeling more-able to choose an alternative identity.
- Rigid “norms of masculinity” make men less likely to change sexual identity.
The final step in the process is to get your students to draw appropriate conclusions from the evidence that’s been presented and examined. In this example this will depend on exactly what you decided to ask your students to explain but the general principle remains sound – and being able to summarise the evidence and conclusions is another valuable and useful skill that will help your students in their studies.
Hu, Yang and Denier, Nicole (2023) “Sexual Orientation Identity Mobility in the United Kingdom: A Research Note”
Gruber, Matthias; Gelman, Bernard and Ranganath, Charan (2014): “States of Curiosity Modulate Hippocampus-Dependent Learning via the Dopaminergic Circuit”