It seems intuitive that people learn more and learn better when they are interested in a particular subject. We all know how hard it is to concentrate on and understand topics that we find dull. Thus, good teachers understand that an important part of their job is to create ways of making their pupils engage with the learning activity.
What is curiosity?
Curiosity is a complex concept (1). It can be defined as the drive to learn something that you don’t yet know. Or it can simply be the motivation for an organism – human and non-human – to search for new things. One important feature of curiosity is that it is intrinsic. That is, we pursue knowledge even when there is no measurable gain, prize, reward, or benefit involved.
Why do we learn better when we are curious?
A recent study (2) gives us a hint as to why we learn better when we are curious: in that research, participants were asked to rate how curious they were about answers to trivia questions. The researchers found that the brain areas activated when participants were very curious and the brain areas that usually activate when we receive a positive reward are extremely similar. That is, learning something we are curious about is as good as receiving a nice treat! Through this, we gain positive associations with the recently learned information, strengthening our memory.
The study also revealed another important feature of curiosity. When participants were waiting for the answers, the researchers showed them faces that were completely unrelated to the trivia questions. It was found that the more curious participants were about the next trivia question, the better they remembered the unrelated faces presented in the interim. In other words, this research shows that when we are engaged with a particular topic, we reach a state that increases learning of other topics – even those we are less interested in.
What does this mean for pupils preparing for their GCSE exams?
A GCSE learning platform should incite curiosity and be engaging. To our brain, learning something provocative is very similar to getting a high mark in an exam, or any other positive reward. Amusing, fun and thought-provoking resources make learning easier and longer-lasting.
More than that, the above-mentioned research suggests that GCSE revision resources should intermix topics. That is, intriguing content should be mingled in with content that is not as stimulating, helping us to understand all of them.
- Kidd and Hayden (2015) The Psychology and Neuroscience of Curiosity, Neuron, 88(3), 449-460.
- Gruber, Gelman and Ranganath (2014) States of Curiosity Modulate Hippocampus-Dependent Learning via the Dopaminergic Circuit, Neuron, 84(2), 486-496.*
This is an edited article – written by Dr Flavia Belham, Chief Scientist @ Seneca Learning, which was originally published at: https://senecalearning.com/blog/curiosity-in-learning/