Stimulate Interest2019-06-06T19:16:56+00:00

Stimulate Interest

Future learners also may demand more personalized experiences in their education. While most of them may start at the same point, their pathways might differ substantially.

– Georgia Tech Provost’s CNE Future Learner Discovery Report

Students are capable of learning new ideas and processes without being aware of their value. However, learning is more likely to occur when the learning experience is personally significant. By stimulating student interest in a class and its content, instructors can make the learning experience personally significant for their students, and positively influence the learning environment. Further, regardless of whether students enter a course with prior experience or pre-existing knowledge of relevant content, there are numerous ways in which instructors can present content to stimulate student interest. (Krapp, 2003; Rotgans & Schmidt, 2017)

Interest is an individual’s desire to engage or re-engage with content over time. We say that a student’s interest has been stimulated when the actions of instructors in a class trigger, maintain, or further develop student interest in a class and its content. As interest is stimulated, students typically move from casual awareness and interaction with content to a level of personal connection. (Flowerday & Shell, 2015; Hidi & Renniger, 2006; Linnenbrink-Garcia, Patall, & Messersmith, 2010; Renniger & Hidi, 2011).

Features of Interest in Learners:

  • Interest involves an interaction between an individual and the surrounding environment.
  • Interest is content or object specific, regardless of activity.
  • Interest affects both affective and cognitive processes.
  • The learner is often not aware of their interest in the moment.
  • Brain activity registers differently when an individual is or is not interested in content (most likely tied to the reward center in the brain).

(Hidi & Renniger 2006; Renniger & Hidi, 2011)

Types of Interest:

  1. Individual/Topical Interest: interest in a specific topic, field, or activity based on pre-existing knowledge, personal experiences, and emotions. This type of interest relates to an individual’s tendency to re-engage certain content continuously over time, often with some psychological state of appreciation and enjoyment when doing so.
  2. Situational Interest: a student’s spontaneous, transitory, and emergent response to content in a class. It is both an attentional and an affective reaction to what a student is experiencing as they are learning.

(Ainley, Hillman, & Hidi, 2002; Flowerday & Shell, 2015; Hidi & Renniger 2006; Linnenbrink-Garcia et al, 2010; Renniger & Hidi, 2011)

When students are interested in the content they are learning, they tend to learn more.  The connection is indirect but strong: as students’ interest increases, so do their overall levels of engagement and motivation. Further, student attitudes about learning tend to improve as their interest is stimulated, leading again to greater levels of learning. (Bernacki & Walkington, 2018; Flowerday & Shell, 2015; Renniger & Hidi, 2011)

As student interest increases, so do other positive learning behaviors – like generating questions, independent problem-solving, seeking deeper explanations, and more. Further, as students become more interested, and their motivation for learning increases, so do behaviors like goal setting and self-regulation, along with increased value placed on achievement. Finally, as levels of interest increase, students are more likely to engage in course-related activity (e.g., studying, working on projects, etc.) for longer periods of time – thus again positively impacting student learning. (Bernacki & Walkington, 2018; Flowerday & Shell, 2015; Hidi & Renniger, 2006; Renniger & Hidi, 2011)

Student interest can be thought about as developing through four stages (see figure 1). While students may be at any stage in the process upon entry into a class, the actions of the instructor can impact student interest both positively (toward higher levels of interest) and negatively (decreased levels of interest). For the instructor, then, the goal is to engage in practices that will positively impact student interest regardless of location on the continuum. (Renniger & Hidi, 2011; Renniger & Riley, 2013; Renniger & Su, 2012)

Students report the following class experiences as helping to trigger and maintain their interest in course material: (Dohn, Madsen, & Malte, 2009; Linnenbrink-Garcia et al, 2010; Mazer, 2012; Mazer, 2013)

Many instructors believe they cannot make a significant contribution to the development of their students’ academic interest. This perception arises from the idea that students either have or do not have interest in a class and its content, and there is little to nothing a student can do to change that (Hidi & Renniger, 2006). That said, many instructors have found ways to make connections with student interests in order to support learning in their classrooms. This can include things like tapping into issues students care about, connecting content with real world or career-related examples, exposing students to new or emerging ideas and trends, and so on.

Strategies for Stimulating Interest in Students

When students are active participants in the learning process, they typically exhibit heightened levels of attention and interest. That is, student interest in content can be triggered and maintained through experiences where students are actively engaged with content and concepts instead of passively receiving information. In addition, students often display signs of heightened interest when they have the opportunity to engage with other students while working on a task. (Dohn, Madsen, & Malte, 2009; Linnenbrink-Garcia et al, 2013; Renninger & Hidi, 2011; Rotgans & Schmidt, 2011)

Note: Classes that do the same thing every time become predictable and boring to students. To keep students interested, mix up the order, tasks, and types of instructional strategies used in class.

  • Use suspense and surprise to prompt student’s interest and curiosity about class material.
    • Incorporate demonstrations to move students to sort out what they just observed or experienced. Demonstrations can be physical (e.g., chemistry experiment) or mental (e.g., logical-ethical conundrum).
    • Tell short stories related to emphasize a unique aspect of a concept or to show how the concept has affected the real world.
    • Use videos to present a confounding visual that promotes curiosity.

Humor triggers student interest by presenting class material in a novel or unanticipated way. Research indicates that humor that is relevant (i.e. related to class material) and appropriate (acceptable to students) has a positive impact on student interest in class material. (Dohn et al, 2009; Machlev & Karlin, 2017) To stimulate student interest, then, consider using sources of humor such as cartoons, stories, memes, and anecdotes.

When using humor in your teaching, be sure to consider the following constraints:

  • Make sure your remarks and examples are relevant to course content. When they are not connected it can feel like a waste of time to students, and it will distract them from their learning rather than support their learning.
  • Avoid disparaging humor that targets and makes specific individuals or groups (whether they are represented in your class or not).
  • Avoid humor involving inappropriate sex, gender, or race-related innuendos and stereotypes.
  • Beware of using too much self-deprecating humor, as that can begin to lower your credibility in the eyes of your students. Too much biting sarcasm can also make you seem less approachable to students, or more likely to treat them harshly in the future.

Allow students to explore what interests them based on their experiences and knowledge related to course content and learning outcomes. Research shows that students’ choice of a topic of interest to them, not just the act of choice, increases their engagement, motivation, and interest in the content and task. (Bernacki & Walkington, 2018; Flowerday Shell, 2015)

When designing student assignments for choice, keep the following in mind:

  • Connect the assignment to clear learning criteria, and make the connection to the overall course clear.
  • Limit the number of options available to students, to keep it manageable.
  • Construct clear rubrics for various options, so students can understand how they will be evaluated.

One way to build and maintain student interest is to help them see the value of what they are learning. This can include gaining the perception that the content or learning tasks are fun, as well as recognition of the usefulness and relevance of the content or tasks to their personal goals. Students take more intrinsic interest in content and perceive content to be meaningful when they can make connections to the materials that are relevant to their own experiences and goals. This meaningfulness can help sustain students’ attention for tasks even when tasks are challenging. (Bernacki & Walkington, 2018; Dohn, Madsen, & Malte, 2009; Hulleman, Thoman, Dicke, & Harackiewicz, 2017; Linnenbrink-Garcia et al, 2013; Renniger & Hidi, 2011; Theall, 2004)

Consider the following options to help students see the relevance and value of what they are learning:

  • Contextualize material as part of a real-world problem.Making connections to existing issues in the world helps build and maintain interest by situating the class material in ongoing debates or events that already capture a student’s attention. Course content with a direct connection to current events, issues, or problems may connect well with students interested in learning about and work related to social impact.
  • Use examples that connect with students’ backgrounds.Connecting class material to students’ existing knowledge and experiences is helpful in triggering and maintaining student interest. Since your students are likely quite diverse in their interests and backgrounds, aim to vary your example choices in order to connect with the variety of students in your class. Alternatively, you might provide a few examples yourself and ask your students to provide additional connections from their perspectives.

“Ah-ha!” moments occur as moments of sudden understanding or comprehension by students. Research shows that when students have “Ah-ha!” moments while answering questions and solving problems, they become more personally connected to what they are learning. By layering questions and engaging students in reflection on their responses – both in class and on out-of-class work – you can lead students along a path from a starting point to a realization of something important or noteworthy about the content they are learning. As a result, their interest in class material, tasks, and even an academic discipline can increase. (Dohn et al., 2009; Linnenbrink-Garcia et al, 2013; Pilcher, 2015; Pilcher, 2016)

General recall or basic opinion questions can be a good way to get started in a class, but they are not particularly interesting. Aim to structure your questions – both in class and on out-of-class work – around higher levels of cognitive complexity. Follow this link for examples of questions at these different levels.

Just as in normal conversation, students pay attention to verbal cues to help them identify when someone is communicating something important. You can use verbal cues to trigger student attention and thereby increase student interest.

Consider the following examples of verbal cues that may prompt student thinking, and lead to increased student interest: (DeLong & Winter, 2002, p. 168)

  1. Highlight content that you think is novel.

I think this is really neat – I haven’t seen anything quite the same.” 

  1. Highlight why content is useful.

This next topic is something that we’ll use again and again.  It contains valuable ideas.”

  1. Explain how content is relevant to course goals and students’ interests/goals.

“As you work through the next section, I think that you’ll be pleasantly surprised how relevant it is.”

  1. Heighten students’ anticipation by inviting them to take an active role in learning content.

“As you read through, ask yourself what is the next logical step.”

  1. Stimulate surprise.

“We’ve all used X in a lot of different ways.  If you thought you’d seen them all, just wait for the next class (assignment).”

  1. Highlight an activity or content that is challenging.

“Who’s up for a challenge?  I think that you’ll find the next piece of work very interesting.”

  1. After you trigger interest or heighten anticipation, highlight content that answers students’ questions or satisfies their curiosity.

“A lot of you have asked me about X.  Well, finally we’re going to find out why that’s so.”


Download the following one-page summary of key points on stimulating student interest:

  1. Ainley, M., Hillman, K., & Hidi, S. (2002). Gender and interest processes in response to literary texts: Situational and individual interest. Learning and Instruction, 12(4), 411-428.
  2. Bernacki, M. L., & Walkington, C. (2018). The role of situational interest in personalized learning. Journal of Educational Psychology, 110(6), 864-881.
  3. DeLong, M., & Winter, D. (2002). Learning to teach and teaching to learn mathematics: Resources for professional development (No. 57). Mathematical Assn of Amer.
  4. Dohn, N. B., Madsen, P. T., & Malte, H. (2009). The situational interest of undergraduate students in zoophysiology. Advances in Physiology Education, 33(3), 196-201.
  5. Flowerday, T., & Shell, D. F. (2015). Disentangling the effects of interest and choice on learning, engagement, and attitude. Learning and Individual Differences, 40, 134-140.
  6. Hidi, S., & Renninger, K. A. (2006). The four-phase model of interest development. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 111-127.
  7. Hulleman, C. S., Thoman, D. B., Dicke, A.-L., & Harackiewicz, J. M. (2017). The Promotion and Development of Interest: The Importance of Perceived Values The Science of Interest (pp. 189-208): Springer.
  8. Krapp, A. (2003). Interest and human development: An educational-psychological perspective. Development and Motivation, 2, 57-84.
  9. Linnenbrink-Garcia, L., Durik, A. M., Conley, A. M., Barron, K. E., Tauer, J. M., Karabenick, S. A., & Harackiewicz, J. M. (2010). Measuring situational interest in academic domains. Educational and psychological measurement, 70(4), 647-671.
  10. Linnenbrink‐Garcia, L., Patall, E. A., & Messersmith, E. E. (2013). Antecedents and consequences of situational interest. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 83(4), 591-614.
  11. Machlev, M., & Karlin, N. J. (2017). The relationship between instructor use of different types of humor and student interest in course material. College Teaching, 65(4), 192-200.
  12. Mazer, J. P. (2012). Development and validation of the student interest and engagement scales. Communication Methods and Measures, 6(2), 99-125.
  13. Mazer, J. P. (2013). Associations among teacher communication behaviors, student interest, and engagement: A validity test. Communication Education, 62(1), 86-96.
  14. Pilcher, J. (2015). A modified Delphi study to define ah ha moments in education settings. Educational Research Quarterly, 38(4), 51.
  15. Pilcher, J. W. (2016). Exploration of Learning Strategies Associated With Aha Learning Moments. Journal for nurses in professional development, 32(2), 74-79.
  16. Renninger, K. A., & Hidi, S. (2011). Revisiting the conceptualization, measurement, and generation of interest. Educational Psychologist, 46(3), 168-184.
  17. Renninger, K. A., & Riley, K. R. (2013). Interest, cognition and case of L-and science. Cognition and motivation: Forging an interdisciplinary perspective, 352-382.
  18. Renninger, K. A., & Su, S. (2012). Interest and its development. The Oxford handbook of human motivation, 167-187.
  19. Rotgans, J. I., & Schmidt, H. G. (2011). Situational interest and academic achievement in the active-learning classroom. Learning and Instruction, 21(1), 58-67.
  20. Rotgans, J. I., & Schmidt, H. G. (2017). The role of interest in learning: knowledge acquisition at the intersection of situational and individual interest. In The science of interest (pp. 69-93). Springer, Cham.
  21. Theall, M. (2004). IDEA Item# 13: Introduced stimulating ideas about the subject. POD-IDEA Center Notes. Retrieved June 27, 2018.