ZEST: Curiosity, Interest & the Brain

What words come to mind when you think of young children and learning? Examples that come to my mind include engaged, curious, interested, active, inquisitive, thoughtful, energetic, wonder, exploring, investigating, testing, learning, and fun. They’re naturally inquisitive.


When I ask college faculty to identify words describing their students and learning, the list is very different. What happens between childhood and when we meet them in college? Teaching to the test, No Child Left Behind, life pressures, maybe it’s not cool to be curious? In Pennsylvania, my niece is stressing over the Keystones, a test for graduation. The fun has been sucked out of learning.

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The informal and fun context for learning is replaced with the formal, fixed, structured. Whatever the causes, college students generally exhibit less childlike enthusiasm for learning.

What can we do to restore some of our students’ natural desire to learn? I think ZEST is the answer. Zest is more than teacher or student enthusiasm. Zest encompasses two issues that are central to learning: curiosity and interest. 

Formally, curiosity is defined as a state of arousal resulting from a situation or circumstances that involves uncertainty and/or ambiguity (e.g. novelty, conflict, complexity, unfinished, incomplete, unsettled, abstraction) characterized as a lack of information resulting in exploratory behavior directed toward resolving the missing information (Berlyne, 1960).

Questions stimulate curiosity. Being told the answer stops curiosity in its tracks. “So rather than jumping straight into the answers, let’s try to start students off with the sort of questions that encourage them to do their own seeking” (Stenger, 2014).

Interest is different but closely related. Dictionary.com defines it as:

  • the feeling of a person whose attention, concern or curiosity is particularly engaged by something;
  • something that concerns, involves, draws the attention of, or arouses the curiosity of a person;
  • power of exciting such concern, involvement.

“The feelings that characterize interest are overwhelmingly positive: a sense of being energized and invigorated, captivated and enthralled. As for its effects on cognition, interest effectively turbocharges our thinking. When we’re interested in what we’re learning, we pay closer attention; we process the information more efficiently; and we employ more effective learning strategies, such as engaging in critical thinking, making connections between old and new knowledge, and attending to deep structure instead of surface features. When we’re interested in a task, we work harder and persist longer, bringing more of our self-regulatory skills into play.” (Murphy, 2013)

In case you’re starting to think I’m suggesting slick productions and fun and games instead of learning, that’s not my point at all. Attending to curiosity and interest isn’t about “higher-ed lite,” entertainment, or edutainment.

Teachers should integrate some zest in instruction because there is strong evidence showing the cognitive states of curiosity and interest enhance and sustain effortful brain function.

Said plainly, attending to curiosity and interest advances learning.

A meta-analysis, gathering data from about 200 studies and 50,000 students shows curiosity does, indeed, influence academic performance (von Stumm, Hell, Chamorro-Premuzic, 2011). In fact, it has quite a large effect, about the same as conscientiousness. When put together, conscientiousness and curiosity have as big an effect on performance as intelligence. The findings suggest that while grades may motivate students, stimulating curiosity is even more powerful. 

Charan Ranganath, a neuroscientist at UC- Davis, says curiosity is piqued when people have some knowledge of a subject but were then faced with a gap in their understanding. “We think curiosity is the drive to fill that gap. It’s like an itch you just have to scratch,” (Sample, 2014). “Curiosity and thinking are of the same phenomenon. One involves the spark (curiosity, the arousal state) behind thinking, and the other pertains to how the spark (the energy, the cognitive motivation) is to be used (the type of thinking) and ultimately how it is satisfied (the stopping of thinking)” (Hill & McGinnis, 2007, p.56).

“Above all, interest determines how hard anyone is willing to think and to work… We have failed because we have too often answered student questions with an absolute authority which admits of no ambiguity…. in our teaching we have traditionally emphasized neatness, order discipline, and efficiency, sometimes to the detriment of intuition, inspiration, and creativity” (Schwartz, 1981, pp.334-335).

“Interest not only deals with the energizing aspects of impelling individuals to activity but also focuses on the content of the activity” (Tobias, 1994, p.47). Thus, attending to interest is an effective way to energize students toward content learning as they make connections between the material and their lives.

In a study of over 80,000 students at 110 high schools, researchers asked student why they were bored in class, 75% said because the material was not interesting, 39% said the material isn’t relevant (Yazzie-Mintz, 2006). I refuse to believe college students show up to class thinking, “I’m going to be disinterested today.”  Immediacy behaviors are one way to address student apathy and increase engagement. Integrating curiosity and interest are another. I’ll write more about zesty strategies in a follow up post.

“You can teach a student a lesson for a day; but if you can teach him to learn by creating curiosity, he will continue the learning process as long as he lives.”  ~ Clay Bedford, 20th century industrialist.

In the meantime, please share your strategies to pique curiosity and interesT.  


Berlyne, D. E. (1960). Conflict, arousal, and curiosity. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Hill, M. & McGinnis, J. 2007. The Curiosity in Marketing Thinking. Journal of Marketing Education, 29(1): 52-62.

Murphy Paul, A. (Nov 2013). The Science of Interest. School Library Journal. 59(11). Accessed August 3, 2016: http://www.slj.com/2013/11/research/the-science-of-interest-the-latest-cognitive-research-can-help-us-engage-students-and-foster-real-learning/

Sample, I. October 2, 2014. The Guardian. Neuroscience. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2014/oct/02/curiosity-memory-brain-reward-system- dopamine Accessed March 29, 2017]

Schwartz, A.T. (1981). Admitting Ambiguity. Journal of Chemical Education. 58(4): 334-336.

Stenger, M. December 17, 2014. Why Curiosity Enhances Learning. Edutopia. Accessed August 3, 2016: http://www.edutopia.org/blog/why-curiosity-enhances-learning-marianne-stenger

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

von Stumm, S., Hell, B., & Chamorro-Premuzic, T. (2011). The Hungry Mind: Intellectual Curiosity Is the Third Pillar of Academic Performance. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6 (6), 574. DOI: 10.1177/1745691611421204

Yazzie-Mintz, E. (2006). Voices of students on engagement: A report on the 2006 high school survey of student engagement. Bloomington, IN: Center for Evaluation and Education Policy. http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED495758.pdf
Accessed: August 26, 2016



About Lolita Paff

Educator. Wife. Mother. Amateur chef. Wine lover.

Posted on June 22, 2017, in Learning, Students, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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