Students tend to be more engaged if what they are learning is related to their personal interests. But what if there is a way to get them interested in just about any topic? The key lies in something that researchers call situational interest.
Educators spend a lot of time wondering how they can relate a subject or topic to their students’ personal interests. But with 40 students in a class, the task can be challenging!
Dr Jerome Rotgans and his colleagues are looking into another form of interest that teachers can tap into: situational interest.
Unlike personal interests (such as sports or travel) that are developed over a long period of time, situational interest is temporary and triggered by the external environment.
For example, if you give students a problem or puzzle and they become curious or even intrigued, you know that you have created situational interest that will drive them to find out the answer.
How Situational Interest Works
“When I ask the students about their individual, deep-seated interest, it is common that they’ll say, ‘I don’t like Math’,” Jerome says with a laugh. “But when we give them some Math puzzles that are authentic or related to real life, they would want to know more.”
His team is busy figuring out how situational interest works, and more importantly, how we can create it in students in our classrooms. What will make them want to find out more about something?
“If you give them a problem and tell them to explain it, they’ll notice that they do not know the answer and recognize that they have a knowledge gap,” he elaborates. “And their reaction is, ‘This is interesting; I want to find out more!’ This leads to situational interest and eventually deep learning.”
If you give them a problem and tell them to explain it, they’ll notice that they do not know the answer and recognize that they have a knowledge gap.
– Jerome Rotgans, Centre for Research in Pedagogy & Practice
Improved Learning and Retention
It is important that what students learn stay with them beyond exams and tests.
Jerome and his team found that students’ long-term retention was stunning if situational- interest strategies were used. In a History class they observed, students remembered almost everything they learned about the fall of Singapore even after 4 months.
“Normally, students would have forgotten about 80% of what they have studied after 2 weeks,” Jerome says. “But in this case, they haven’t forgotten anything about the topic!”
Those students were not just more interested; they learned and retained more. Jerome notes, “Previously, we found that students with high level of situational interest also perform significantly better on standardized tests. So we thought this was something important to look into.”
Also encouraging to him was how students who are academically weaker benefit from the approach as well. While they did not get the top scores, their learning curve was steeper.
“For them, the more concrete and everyday and authentic you make the problem, the more they can connect it to the knowledge they have, and the more motivated they are.”
From Situational to Lifelong Interest
Situational interest makes students want to explore. But once they have gained sufficient understanding to close their knowledge gap, their interest decreases. “If you know the answer to a puzzle, do you still want to work on it? No, you already know it, so you move on,” Jerome explains.
But if a teacher can create and maintain situational interest in students, the exploration and subsequent “aha” moments will eventually increase their personal, deep-seated interest in the subject.
In a series of studies, Jerome and his team demonstrated that when a teacher used situational, interesting Science problems over the duration of just 4 weeks, students changed their attitudes towards the subject, thinking, “Actually, this is not that bad!“ Over time, they become more interested in the subject in general. That leads to better understanding and students may even continue to engage with the subject outside of school.
To Jerome, it is about letting students experience the joy and satisfaction of learning. If we can get students interested in the thought-provoking questions of a particular subject, it may just change their attitude towards it, and even their perspective of learning. And this change will be a change for life.
As Jerome puts it, “You really have to give students opportunities to learn something for life and not only for the test. When they learn for life, they never forget it, and they use it to understand the world better. That’s what I feel education is about.”