Category Archives: Learning

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. 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:

Sample, I. October 2, 2014. The Guardian. Neuroscience. 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:

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.
Accessed: August 26, 2016


Better Late than Never

I recently came across an oldie but goodie, Larry Spence’s 2001 piece in Change, “The Case Against Teaching.” It’s filled with golden nuggets, definitely worth tracking down and reading the entire piece first hand. It’s going to be one you tuck away and reread. Here are two segments that resonated deeply with me.

“Why is education more resistant to innovation than business, agriculture, or communication? Because parents, reporters, citizens, children, politicians and professional educators share an unsinkable image of what teachers and students are supposed to do… It’s assumptions are that teaching is telling, learning is absorbing, and knowledge is subject-matter content. Teachers tell you what to learn and how to learn it” (p. 12).

“Beginning professors thus work in isolation without the criticism, advice, or example of their senior colleagues. Each struggles to learn the same lessons of classroom management. This arrangement guarantees not only the reinvention of the wheel, but the reinvention of the flat tire…. We get good at being professors-mostly by repeating the behaviors we witnessed while we were students” (p.14).

These quotes describe my teaching, in practice and philosophy, when I first entered the classroom as a community college adjunct, over twenty years ago. A family member asked, “What makes you think you can teach?” My response, “What makes any professor think they can?” I was a CPA, of course I could teach accounting.

You won’t be surprised when I admit it wasn’t so simple or straightforward. Truth-be-told, I was a terrible teacher. My first course did not start well. I knew it and so did the students. I thought it was their fault: lazy, unmotivated, unprepared, lacking ability. It didn’t cross my mind that I might be the reason the class never asked questions and performed poorly on exams. Borrowing from Spence, I reinvented the flat tire.

We were several weeks into the term when a student made an appointment to see me. We met in the library. I was ready to discuss accounting. She had other ideas. She started by telling me that it was clear I knew the material and was obviously successful in practice. So far… so good.

Then she dropped the bombshell: “I’m sure you realize the class is not going well. Would you like some pointers to improve your teaching?”

At this point, I remembered from the first class period introductions, this woman was a retired teacher. She was starting a consulting business and wanted to be able to understand her accountant. That’s why she was taking the class.

My initial reaction was shock and dismay. I felt like someone dumped cold water on me. Then I quickly considered my choices: Remind her I am the teacher. No thank you, I know what I’m doing! Or, admit it’s not going well and ask for help.

I swallowed my pride and asked for her advice. I implemented her suggestion, an active learning strategy, during the next period. It worked. Students watched me demonstrate, they took notes, and immediately did a similar problem in class. They had questions and I answered them. The transformation was remarkable.

The student who met with me, I am dismayed that I don’t remember her name, stayed until everyone else left the classroom at the end of the night.   As she walked toward the door, she paused and said “Now you’re a teacher.” I didn’t realize it then, but that night changed my life. I started teaching because I thought there was a lot I could teach others. I continue teaching because I have much to learn.

To all the students who’ve learned with me and helped me grow as a teacher, thank you.

Reference: Spence, L.D. (2001). The Case Against Teaching. Change, Nov/Dec: 10-19.

What makes a course hard?

The Feb 2nd post (Easy A?) ended with a series of questions about grades, learning and instructional strategies. I fully intended to begin addressing them here. But as I dug into the literature I realized other issues need exploring.

When students report my courses are “hard,” my first instinct is to write them off as whining complaints. Then I look at grade distributions and review the number and type of assessments to try to discredit the feedback. I usually succeed, but nagging questions remain. What do students mean when they say my course is hard? What if our definitions are different? Does it matter?

What makes a course hard? Draeger, del Prado Hill & Mahler (2015) find “faculty perceived learning to be most rigorous when students are actively learning meaningful content with higher-order thinking at the appropriate level of expectation within a given context” (p. 216). Interactive, collaborative, engaging, synthesizing, interpreting, predicting, and increasing levels of challenge are a small sample of the ways faculty describe rigor. In contrast, “students explained academic rigor in terms of workload, grading standards, level of difficulty, level of interest, and perceived relevance to future goals” (p.215) and course quality is “a function of their ability to meet reasonable faculty expectations rather than as a function of mastery of learning outcomes” (p.216). Their findings are consistent with previous research, match my views of what makes a course challenging, and reflect the comments my students made.

It’s clear.

We are not on the same page about what makes a course rigorous.


Does it matter? I think it does for two reasons. Clearly, if you’re concerned about course evaluations, the scores will be lower if students’ and teachers’ definitions and aims are not aligned. Beyond the ratings, the mismatched definitions, expectations, and criteria have significant implications for learning. Consider this analogy.

Monique wants to lose weight. She plans to eat fewer calories and exercise more. She hires a personal trainer to set up a cardio program. Monique isn’t very knowledgeable about weight loss physiology; she thinks less food and more cardio are all she needs. And for the short term, she has a point. Thus, she’s surprised when the trainer starts the session with ten minutes of cardio and then tells her to head over to the weight machines. Monique, despite her limited background in exercise science, says she’s only interested in cardio: treadmill, elliptical, climber, and spinning. The trainer persists and Monique begrudgingly complies. But, Monique’s enthusiasm for the program is diminished and she leaves without knowing why weight training is a hard but necessary component of the trainer’s plan.

Many students are like Monique. She’s paid good money for the trainer’s services. She knows she’s going to sweat on the cardio machines. She’s willing to work. But her expectations and understanding about exercise are incomplete. Because of this, she may not realize the trainer’s program will do more to help achieve her goals in the short- and long-term than cardio alone.  Or, she might comprehend what the trainer is trying to help her achieve, but Monique may only care about the short-term fix. Monique may not have the time (or may not value time at the gym enough) to devote an hour when 20 minutes of cardio would seem to be enough, at least for now. Monique’s goals and understanding of the process do not match the trainer’s.

Similarly, many teachers are like the trainer. The trainer assumed Monique would accept, on faith, that she has her client’s best interest in mind. The trainer believes she knows what’s best for her client. The trainer assumes Monique knows what a comprehensive exercise program looks like so she didn’t take time to explain why weight training is necessary. Notice that the story discusses the trainer’s plan, not a plan they developed together. Notice this too- the trainer is thinking like an expert, forgetting that novices see and approach things very differently.

As long as the trainer/trainee and teacher/student hold different definitions and expectations, the working relationship will produce less than optimal results and “satisfaction surveys” will reflect the mismatched priorities.

What can we do about it? Martin, et al., (2008) investigate students’ perceptions of hard and easy courses across engineering programs. Two of their strategies have broad application.

  • Consider student characteristics. Student differences with respect to semester standing, level of academic preparation, in-major v. general education course, and student major affect perceptions of course difficulty. The more teachers know their students, the better equipped we are to determine where students are in the learning maturation process. “The key is determining what an appropriate challenge is for a course and for a particular group of students. The more an instructor interacts with students, the more likely the instructor is to notice the overwhelmed or bored students” (p. 112).
  • Emphasize content connections. Applicability of content is an important filter students use to gauge course rigor. “Real” and “relevant” are the levers that push students to work harder and longer. Content needs to matter to students personally or professionally.  Teachers need to keep that in mind.

The more I read and think about what makes a course “hard,” the more it feels like we’re trying to nail jello to the wall. When we meet the needs of some, the rest may feel squished. It may not be possible to get it right, all the time, for every student. But I do believe, and the research on learning bears this out, there is value in initiating conversations with students about learning. We can’t dispel misperceptions if we’re unaware. The goal of the conversations isn’t to negotiate watering down the course, making grading easier, or lowering expectations. It’s to give students a voice and share ownership so that learning becomes more than a series of assignments reflecting only the teacher’s goals.


Draeger, J., P. del Prado Hill, & R. Mahler. (2015). Developing a Student Concept of Academic Rigor. Innovation in Higher Education, 40: 215-228.

Martin, J.H.,  Hands, K.B., Lancaster, S.M., Trytten, D.A.,  & Murphy, T.J. (2008). Hard But Not Too Hard: Challenging Courses and Engineering Students, College Teaching, 56(2): 107-113.