Identifying Questions to Investigate

A Research Question Should Pique Students’ Curiosity

Namsoo Shin & Steven McGee
Copyright 2003

What is piquing students’ curiosity?

Research questions work best when they are designed to be thought provoking to students. Such questions often involve the counterintuitive, the thought provoking, and the controversial as a means of engaging students in the sustained inquiries. They should be sufficiently open to accommodate diverse interests and learning styles and allow for unique responses and creative approaches—even ones that the teachers had not considered” (Wiggins & McTighe, 1998, p. 30). Curiosity is an important part of what researchers call intrinsic motivation. This is defined as “positive emotions toward” a subject (Deci & Ryan, 1985). For example, students are intrinsically motivated when learning subjects of interest outside of school. In contrast, they are extrinsically motivated when the activity is done for other rewards, such as good grades, high salary, or approval (Deci, Vallerand, Pelletier, & Ryan, 1991). Intrinsic motivation is a stronger influence of learning than extrinsic motivation (Guthrie, Wigfield, Metsala, & Cox, 1999). That’s why it is important to pique curiosity.

Why is piquing students’ curiosity important?

  • Piquing curiosity improves students’ learning.
    Curiosity is likely to support enhanced learning and achievement because it can help to activate students’ prior knowledge (Alexander, Kulikowich, & Jetton, 1994; Brophy, 1999; Deci, 1992; Thomas & Oldfather, 1997). Students will then be able to make better connections with new material. As a result, students experience increased personal growth and knowledge (Shernoff & Hoogstra, 2001; Deci & Ryan, 1985). See details in prior knowledge.
  • Curiosity promotes sustained effort.
    Curiosity not only affects what students learn, but also the intensity and duration of the learning activities (Pintrich, Roeser, & DeGroot, 1994; Vollmeyer & Rheinberg, 2000). Research proved that the students with curiosity try hard enough to learn and put consistent effort to reach learning goals (Simon, 1967).
  • Curiosity fosters a positive attitude toward learning.
    A key aspect of fostering a positive attitude toward learning is catching the interest of students and holding it (Dewey, 1913; Mitchell, 1993). Curiosity promotes students’ involvement in school activities that result in positive attitude toward learning. Researchers believe that curiosity gives rise to attitudes that lead to lifelong learning, the development of competence, and achievement (Shernoff & Hoogstra, 2001; Thomas & Oldfather 1997).

How does a designer promote students’ motivation?

  • Gain students’ attention.
    Attention, one condition of curiosity, is defined as “capturing the interest of learners and stimulating the motivation to learn” (Keller, 1987a, p.2).
    • Using visual materials
      Researchers suggest that designers have to use varying visual materials (e.g., film, video, print) in instructions to gain students’ attention. The visual representations of important ideas stimulate students’ curiosity and encourage student involvement in learning (Turner, 1992).
    • Using misconception
      When students faced with evidence that what they believe to be true is, in fact, false and a misconception, students often are interested in resolving the discrepancy (Bergin, 1999). Research found that these stimuli are likely to attract attention and hold students’ engagement after the novelty effect wore off (Bergin, 1999).
  • Enhance relevance.
    Researchers state that relevance is determined to be the most important motivational strategy that stimulates students’ curiosity in trying to comprehend subjects (Means, Jonassen & Dwyer, 1997; Keller, 1987b, p.7). Relevance can be defined as “meeting the personal needs/goals of the learner to effect motivations” (Keller, 1987a, p.2). Motivation may be optimized when the learning goals and activities have some relevance to students’ personal lives (Brophy, 1999).
    • Using authentic context
      Instruction needs to focus on content that is at least potentially relevant to students and applicable to their lives outside of school. Designers should use practical everyday materials such as: newspapers, magazines, reference books, maps, and globes. Relevant media, examples, or case studies are needed to incorporate into the lessons for increasing the relevance of the content to the students’ present experience and future expectations (Turner, 1992).
  • Encourage students’ confidence.
    Confidence is defined as “the students’ positive expectancy of success” (Keller & Kopp, 1987, p.294). Students’ confidence can influence their persistence and motivation. The strategies for confidences have to be designed to help students believe that a reasonable level of success is possible if they put forth the effort (Shellnut, Knowlton, & Savage, 1999).
    • Using familiar context
      Research findings suggest that information should be introduced to students using a familiar context (Fleming, 1993; Park & Hannifin, 1993; Keller, 1987a).
    • Stating clear learning goals
      Research recommends that stating learning goals clearly is one way to increase learners’ confidence. In addition, instructions have to allow access to learning objectives when students need. (Keller, 1987a; Shellnut, Knowlton, & Savage, 1999).
    • Providing self-evaluation tools
      Self-evaluation tools provide students opportunities to master some of the content in low-risk conditions. Research has found that this strategy increases students’ confidence and motivation because self-evaluation tools permit students to perceive that they are gaining knowledge, learning skills, and becoming competent (Hogan, & Pressley, 1997).


Alexander, P. A., Kulikowich, J. M., & Jetton, T. L. (1994). The role of subject matter knowledge and interest in the processing of linear and non-linear texts. Review of Educational Research, 64, 201-252.

Bergin, D. A. (1999). Influences on classroom interest. Educational Psychologist, 34(2), 87-98.

Brophy, J. (1999). Toward a model of the value aspects of motivation in education: Developing appreciation for particular learning domains and activities. Educational Psychologist, 34(2), 75-85.

Byer, J. L. (2002). Approaches for motivating and enabling eighth graders to comprehend history textbooks. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 464 864).

Chalupa, M., Chen, C., & Charles, T. (2001, Fall). An analysis of college students’ motivation and learning strategies in computer courses: A cognitive view. Delta Pi Epsilon Journal, 43(4), 185-99.

Deci, E. L. (1992). The relation of interest to the motivation of behavior: A self-determination theory perspective. In K. A. Renninger, S. Hidi, & A. Krapp (Eds.), The role of interest in learning and development (pp. 43-70). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York: Plenum Press.

Deci, E. L., Vallerand, R. J., Pelletier, L. G., & Ryan, R. M. (1981). Motivation and education: The self-determination perspective. Educational Psychologist, 26, 325-346.

Dewey, J. (1913). Interest and effort in education. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Fleming, M.L. (1993). Displays and communication. In M.L. Fleming & W.H. Levie (Eds.), Instructional message design (2nd ed., pp. 233-259). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Education Technology Publications.

Guthrie, J. T., Wigfield, A., Metsala, J. L. & Cox, K. E. (1999). Motivational and cognitive predictors of text comprehension and reading amount. Scientific Studies of Reading, 3, 231-256.

Guthrie, J. T., Wigfield, A., & VonSecker, C. (June, 2000). Effects of integrated instruction on motivation and strategy use in reading. Journal of Educational Psychology, 92(2), 331-341.

Hogan, K., & Pressley, M. (1997). Scaffolding Student Learning: Instructional Approaches & Issues. Advances in Teaching and Learning Series. Cambridge, MA: Brookline Books.

Keller, J. M. (1987a). Development and use of the ARCS model of instructional design. Journal of Instructional Development, 10(3), 2-10.

Keller, J. M. (1987b). Strategies for stimulating the motivation to learn. Performance and Instruction, 26(8), 1-7.

Keller, J. M. (1987c). The systematic process of motivational design. Performance and Instruction, 26(9), 1-8.

Keller, J. M. , & Kopp, T. W. (1987). An application of the ARCS model of motivational design. In C.M. Reigeluth (Ed.), Instructional theories in action: Lessons illustrating selected theories and models (pp. 289-320). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Means, T.B., Jonassen, D.H., & Dwyer, F.M. (1997). Enhancing relevance: Embedded ARCS strategies vs. purpose. Educational Technology Research and Development, 45(1), 5-17.

Mitchell, M. 91993). Situational interest: Its multifaceted structure in the secondary school mathematics classroom. Journal of Educational Psychology, 85, 424-436.

Park, I., & Hannifin, M. (1993). Empirically-based guidelines for the design of interactive multimedia. Educational Technology Research and Development, 41(3), 63-85.

Pintrich, P.R., Roeser, R., & De Grot, E. (1994). Classroom and individual differences in early adolescents’ motivation self-regulated learning. Journal of Early Adolescence, 14, 139-161.

Pintrich, P. R., & Schunk, D. H. (1996). Motivation in education: Theory, research, and applications. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Shernoff, D.J., & Hoogstra, L. (Fall, 2001). Continuing motivation beyond the high school classroom. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development, 93, 73-87

Thomas, S., & Oldfather, P. (1997). Intrinsic motivations, literacy, and assessment practices: “That’s my grade. That’s me.” Educational Psychologist, 32(2), 107-123.

Turner, G. 91992). Motivating reluctant readers, What can educators do? Reading Improvement, 29(1), 51-55.

Shellnut, B., Knowlton, A., & Savage, T. (1999). Applying the ARCS model to the design and development of computer-based modules for manufacturing engineering courses. Educational Technology Research and Development, 47(2), 100-110.

Simon, H.A. (1967). Motivational and emotional controls of cognition. Psychological Review, 74, 29-39

Spaulding, C. F. (1992). Motivation in the classroom. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Vollmeyer, R. & Rheinberg, F. (2000). Does motivation affect performance via persistence? Learning and Instruction, 10, 293-309.

Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (1998). Understanding by design. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall.

Zuckerman, M., Porac, J., Lathin, D., Smith, R. & Deci, E.L. (1978). On the importance of self-determination for intrinsically-motivated behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 4, 443-446

Privacy Statement and Copyright 1997-2003 by Wheeling Jesuit University/NASA Classroom of the Future™. All rights reserved.

Center for Educational Technologies and the COTF/Classroom of the Future logo are registered trademarks of Wheeling Jesuit University.