skip to main content columnskip to left navigation

Center for Teaching Excellence

East Tennessee State University


Piquing Curiosity
What Does Curiosity Have to do with Motivation?

Two atoms are walking down the street.

Doesn't this get your attention? Don't you want to hear more? Curiosity is the spur to our flanks, the itch to our scratch.

In education, the traditional tendency is to answer the questions before they've even been asked. We impart information without first provoking that sense of curiosity that will make learners lean in and pay attention to the answer.

You can evoke curiosity in your students using two major methods:

  1. Create an awareness of a gap in knowledge (Heath & Heath, 2007, 2010b).
  2. Craft a "story" around your content (Heath & Heath, 2007; Willingham, 2009).

... The rest of the joke: One atom says to the other, "Hey! I just lost an electron!" The other atom asks, "Are you sure?" The first atom replied, "Yes, I'm positive." 

How Can I Make Students Aware of a Gap in Their Knowledge?

1. Pose questions that indicate more needs to be learned - provocative ones work best.

  • Examples:
      • "How do wild Amish parties mess up their adolescents' development?" (Launches a discussion about identity development, linked to the Amish concept of Rumspringa.)
      • "Everybody knows the name of Mozart and most people can recognize his biggest works. But what is it about his music that has kept it so popular over the centuries?" (Introduces music theory concepts within the context of Mozart's music.)
      • "Lots of money has been spent on 'Stop Smoking' campaigns, and most of us acknowledge that smoking is bad for your health. But why has the U.S. spent so much money on this particular campaign? What does it have to gain?" (Introduces the concepts of health care costs, financial benefits, etc., within the context of smoking.)

2. Tell a story. It doesn't have to be fictional, or just an example of the concept you are teaching. Instead, make the concept (or lesson plan) an entire story.

Willingham (2009) suggests there are 4 Cs to crafting a story:

  • Causality: Make the elements of the story causally related to one another.
  • Conflict: The main character pursuing a goal becomes unable to reach it.
  • Complications: Subproblems that arise on the way to the main goal.
  • Character: Good stories contain strong characters, which are best described through the characters' actions rather than telling the audience what the character is like.

Not only do stories help captivate attention and create enough personal dissonance to keep the listener curious and engaged, they also provide a structure for better memory of the concepts.

icon for left menu icon for right menu