An interest in learning

Interest is a second issue frequently mentioned as a condition for learning. Interest is an aspect of what we know. It is useful to examine two types of interest;

• Personal interest; the preferences that learners bring to a learning context.

• Situational interest; the environmental factors used to make ideas more interesting to learn; we learn to recognize information that suggest that something may be interesting.

Both facilitate learning by energizing the necessary learner activity.

Do we learn better things that we rate as more interesting? Student interest influences whether learning occurs. Information rated as more interesting by students is learnt and recalled more successfully, with a greater influence for boys. The speed of learning is influenced by a learner’s level of interest. Interest influences how learners direct their attention, the effort they need to invest their level of persistence with a task and how they use what they already know.

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Beliefs about the value and interest level of a task or an idea are linked. Beliefs about its value predict task performance by affecting how a learner engages cognitively with the task or idea. They predict the types of cognitive and metacognitive strategies used and the management of effort.

What factors increase situational interest? Situational interest is managed by teachers. Factors that affect it include features of the tasks and learning materials used. Students’ situational interest is increased by including in the teaching features such as

• presenting information that leads students to question what they know,

• providing the opportunity for choice in the learning context.

• optimizing the novelty value of information,

• using fantasy and

• building student surprise into the learning, presenting events that are unexpected.

It is obviously important that these features be within the capability range of the students involved.

When are students more likely to display interest in learning? When they

• learn topics, for which they have better -developed knowledge,

• use active learning strategies such as elaboration, seeking information, critical thinking rather than retention strategies such as rehearsal,

• judge them to be more likely to give pleasure, success or satisfaction using their knowledge of past similar events or ideas that were linked with pleasurable outcomes,

• judge them to be useful for dealing with future events and needs,

• judge an idea or event to have unusual, unexpected or not predicted characteristics.

• believe that we have a reasonable chance of learning them.

The influence of interest on learning is complex and multifaceted. Level of interest in a topic is not static, but changes as learning proceeds. At one time students may not display interest in an idea per se but in avoiding the consequences of not learning it. As their knowledge of the idea grows, so may their interest.

[On the drive to work last week the only car that stimulated Allan to change what he knew was a yellow convertible being driven by a giraffe in a sailor outfit. None of the other 278 cars that passed Allan stimulated learning.

Jill has an intense interest in fishing. She attends talks and films, borrows videos about fishing, goes fishing whenever she can and is always experimenting with new ways of fishing.

Jack, Jill’s boyfriend knew that if he were to retain her interest he would need to take an active role in fishing and so he goes to fishing classes.

Tina found that she learnt the TV commercial for selling a brand of carpets. The words and tune just seemed to ‘drip in’.]

Is interest in learning sufficient? Interest by itself is insufficient to explain learning. However, it determines the quality and quantity of the learning; those who aren’t as interested in or value an idea may learn aspects of it but not necessarily at the same level of quality as those who are more interested in it.

It is not clear whether situational interest can compensate for personal interest. Teachers can include features that are likely to increase this interest, but unless it links with the existing knowledge of students, it is not likely to lead to change this knowledge.

Interest in an idea can grow as we learn more about an idea. We can be motivated to learn an idea in which we are not initially interested. Our interest can grow with continued exposure to the idea.

We are continually exposed to information, both familiar and unfamiliar. We don’t show an interest in all of this information. We are not usually interested in information that was totally predictable.

Nor we are likely to be interested in topics about which we know nothing. Consider Peter’s episode earlier. The car in which he was interested was the one that was partly unexpected.

We learn when we are challenged

In the episodes at the beginning of this section we noted that all of the learners were challenged.

Allan’s challenge was to know more about the giraffe driving the car; this didn’t fit his existing knowledge. Jill’s challenge was to know more about fishing. The challenge may not have come from others but from her belief that she could know more about aspects of fishing. Jack’s challenge was to retain Jill’s friendship. All perceived a challenge because they believed their existing knowledge was inadequate. Linked with each of these challenges was a motive or desire to learn.

In our model of learning, we are suggesting that learners need to be challenged before they can have a motive to learn. Our curiosity needs to be elicited. Being challenged to learn is what Keeler (1983) called ‘inquiry arousal’; the learner is aroused by a perceived query. That is, Emotional feelings ——> being challenged —–> motives for learning —-> motivation linked with ideas to learn to learn

Contemporary theories of motivation note that importance of being challenged for motivation:

“Activities must be optimally challenging to be interesting and to promote intrinsic motivation”

When is information likely to challenge us? It may be novel but can be linked with what we already know. It may be unexpected. It also needs to be judged as having potential value, able to help us handle future situations more easily or achieve particular outcomes. It is of interest.

In teaching, activities are frequently described as ‘challenging’. This description is appropriate only if they do challenge students, that is, ask questions that they want to resolve. Being challenged has a strong emotional loading; it is a desire, a wanting to know more about a set of ideas. It is what learners do, a quality of the pupil-teaching interaction rather than of activities or materials.

Being challenged is critical for learning. Learners ‘frame up’ for themselves the response to a challenge. Their active responses to the challenge determine learning by initiating the need to learn more. This is the concept of ‘self-challenged’. We are challenged by an event or idea that we don’t think we can make sense of. The self-challenge is framed when we believe we don’t know and want to. It leads us to invest attention in the idea.

The conditions necessary for being challenged to learn new ideas are when

• We perceive novelty

• We are surprised by an experience or an event; there is an element of the unexpected; “That shouldn’t have happened”, “things don’t fit”.

• We judge a new idea, skill, etc., is useful for us to know or do; we need to learn it to achieve some goal.

So far we have focused on being challenged by a new idea. As well as the initial challenge to learn, a second aspect is continuing until a desired outcome is perceived to be achieved or the motive discarded. The two aspects of being challenged are:

(1) An initial attention-attracting aspect and

(2) A challenge -sustaining aspect that continues until goals are perceived to be met or discarded.

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