An emerging area of educational research has found a specific quality that has a big impact on learner engagement. It makes learning more enjoyable. It boosts memory. And it can significantly improve the performance of learners, even those who are struggling.
Curious to find out what it is?
Researchers at UC Davis wanted to explore why people remember some things and forget others. And they targeted a specific factor that they thought could provide an answer: Curiosity.
In the study, they asked subjects 100 trivia questions. After answering each question, subjects were asked how curious they were to find out the correct answer. After they answered all 100 questions, they reviewed each question and were given the correct answer.
A few days later, the subjects were unexpectedly tested on the same set of questions. Those who had higher levels of curiosity performed much better on the follow-up test, scoring 18 percent higher on average.
Another study, conducted over several years, found that grade-school students who measured high in curiosity scored roughly 12 percent higher on a comprehensive assessment than less curious students. What’s more, the researchers found that activating curiosity in struggling and disinterested students had an even bigger impact, as they saw their scores increase by an average of 20 percent.
There was another twist in the UC Davis study that uncovers the full power of curiosity. During the initial round of trivia questions, subjects were shown random photos of people in between questions without any explanation as to why. When given a follow-up test on these photos, the curious subjects were better at recalling them as well.
So curiosity not only led to a better recall of the questions that were the focus of the study. It also boosted recall on something seemingly meaningless and of no significance to the subjects. Curiosity appeared to activate something in their brains that helped them remember uninteresting, peripheral information as well.
The neuroscience of curiosity
Another fascinating piece of the UC Davis study sheds light on the connection between curiosity and memory. And it might explain why the curious subjects remembered those random photos.
While the learners reviewed the trivia questions – right before they were given the correct answers – they had their brain activity monitored in an MRI machine. When learners were curious about a trivia question, the researchers could literally watch their brains light up.
Specifically, the researchers found pronounced brain activity in two areas – the pleasure/reward area and the hippocampus, which plays an important role in forming new memories.
The researchers found that the pleasure center of the brain lights up when we’re curious. And when this area is activated in the brain, it releases dopamine, the neurotransmitter responsible for giving us a little high feeling when we exercise, for example, or when we hear our favorite song. In short, curiosity feels good.
“The dopamine also seems to play a role in enhancing the connections between cells that are involved in learning,” the head researcher stated. “Curiosity really is one of the very intense and very basic impulses in humans. We should base education on this behavior.”
Some learners are curious by nature, of course, and those learners are likely already quite successful. So here are some recommendations based on the research for activating curiosity in your less curious learners and boosting their engagement in the talent development process.
Start by asking questions.
Probing, open-ended questions about the subject at hand are a proven way to engage learners at the beginning of a training session. Whether they are provided in advance of an e-learning experience or asked during in-person training, these questions will get learners thinking about the topic and activate their natural curiosity about what they are about to learn.
Create a safe environment for questioning.
When conducting group discussions during a learning experience, it’s important to create an environment where people feel safe to ask questions, be vulnerable and express their natural curiosity.
While it might be a cliché, establishing a “no stupid questions” atmosphere will allow learners to say what’s on their minds and potentially touch on important topics, questions and concerns that might not have been revealed otherwise.
Connect learning to real-world outcomes.
Sometimes it helps to draw a straight line from the subject matter to the outcome the learners will experience as a result. For example, imagine you begin a leadership discussion with, “You will become a better manager if you pay attention today,” or you begin a sales training with, “Who wants to close more deals?”
Not only will these statements pique curiosity, they will also trigger learners to think about the ultimate purpose and personal benefit of the training session, and therefore increase engagement.
Gruber, M. J., et al. (2014). States of curiosity modulate hippocampus-dependent learning via the dopaminergic circuit. Neuron, 84(2), 486-496.
Shah, P. E., et al. (2018). Early childhood curiosity and kindergarten reading and math academic achievement. Pediatric Research. doi: 10.1038/s41390-018-0039-3