How to make your pupils curious enough to learn

Marc Smith explains that curiosity is a crucial motivator that we do not always use as much as we should 

Marc Smith


Curiosity is a tricky concept. We know it is useful for learning – we tend to be able to recall the things that most interest us, while those we find uninteresting or insignificant seem to fade away or become difficult to access – but finding useful and usable ways to encourage it in the classroom is problematic.

Curiosity can also be rather unpleasant. Todd Kashdan and Paul Silvia describe it as a mental itch that needs to be scratched: when we are curious about something, it can cause an almost unpleasant sensation that can only be relieved by finding out (Kashdan and Silvia, 2012). 

That does make it, however, a very powerful motivator. 

So, how can teachers best use curiosity?

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Teachers often try to provoke curiosity by posing a baffling conundrum or beginning a science lesson with a whizz and a bang. The problem is, the heightened state of curiosity often fades when the lesson gets down to the nitty-gritty.

Some also try to make learning relevant to everyday life or encourage some kind of personal link to knowledge. However, recent research appears to indicate that uncertainty may be the primary driver of curiosity – thinking we know something but then discovering that we don’t (Wade and Kidd, 2019). 

Curious to learn

Meanwhile, knowing nothing about a subject appears not to ignite our curiosity, while knowing too much can lead to boredom.

What, then, is the perfect level of knowledge to make a pupil curious to find out more? A new piece of research may offer some assistance. 

Shirlene Wade and Celeste Kidd, of the University of California Berkeley, recruited 87 adults from the US and quizzed them online for about an hour with 100 trivia questions. 

In phase 1 of the study (the learning phase), participants gave a best guess in response to each trivia question and indicated whether they thought their answer was correct. They also rated on a scale of 1 to 7 how close they thought their answers were to being accurate and how curious they were to find out the correct answer. 

They were then shown the answers for five seconds and asked to rate their level of surprise. 

In phase 2 of the study, participants answered the same questions except for those they had correctly answered in phase 1. Independent evaluators then used objective methods to calculate how close each answer was to being accurate. They then measured the gap between what the participants thought the answer was and what it actually was. 

Learning gains

On average, participants in phase 1 got 18 questions out of 100 right, while in phase 2, the average was 69 out of 100. 

Overall, those who believed their initial best guess was close to the correct answer also showed the highest levels of curiosity.

This, according to the researchers, indicates that participants who were more curious were better at guessing correctly in the testing phase and were, therefore, more inspired to learn.

These findings aren’t necessarily new. Psychologist Daniel Berlyne discovered a similar phenomenon in the early 1960s, which was incorporated into a model of curiosity based around novelty, complexity, uncertainty and conflict (I’ve discussed this at length in my book The Emotional Learner). This latest study reinforces the notion that uncertainty has a role to play in triggering and sustaining curiosity.

The right kind of knowledge

There is also, perhaps, a more interesting component here, certainly in regards to knowledge. Often, it’s assumed that curiosity arises because we want to know about something we have no knowledge of, yet these results indicate that knowing something (even if it’s inaccurate) is what piques our interest – we have to have some knowledge before becoming curious. 

There are, however, a few things to be wary of about this new study.

First of all, the sample is rather small (87 adults) and it would be interesting to discover if these findings are maintained when larger samples are involved.

Second, participants were all adults taking part in a rather artificial study – this could indicate that the results might not be transferable to real-world learning environments involving children.  

Nevertheless, the latest findings represent an interesting addition to the literature on curiosity and provide a welcome springboard for more research into this area.

It's too early yet, however, to know if they can be successfully applied to the classroom. 


Kashdan, TB and Silvia, PJ (2012) “Curiosity and Interest: The Benefits of Thriving on Novelty and Challenge” The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology, 367-375. 

Wade, S and Kidd, C (2019). “The role of prior knowledge and curiosity in learning” Psychonomic Bulletin and Review



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Marc Smith

Marc Smith is a chartered psychologist and teacher. He is the author of The Emotional Learner and Psychology in the Classroom (with Jonathan Firth). He tweets @marcxsmith


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