How Curiosity Enhances Learning

January 9th, 2016 No Comments Features

Why is it that when one man builds a wall, the next man immediately needs to know what's on the other side-

When we talk about curiosity and learning, we tend to talk about it from an engagement perspective. If students remain interested in and curious about a topic, they will pay more attention and, ultimately, learn more. But this isn’t the whole story, and we’re doing ourselves a disservice by cutting it short.

It might seem obvious that curiosity and learning go hand-in-hand, but the scientific community sees it differently. Until very recently, there hasn’t been much published researched on how curiosity works in the brain. It’s a difficult phenomenon to describe, let alone study. But the latest neuroscience tells us that one mental process in particular benefits from curiosity, a process crucial to learning and education in general, and it just so happens to be the missing part of the conversation: memory.

Curiosity, Uncertainty, & Memory

Earlier this year, researchers at Lake Forest College conducted an extensive literature review on the topic of curiosity and its impact on memory. A systematic literature search was executed using a database that contains an extensive amount of academic journals, including empirical articles, chapters of from textbooks, literature reviews, and peer-reviewed journals. The articles covered a 55 year span of research and the participants ranged from 5 – 40 years old, with the majority being undergraduate students. Most studies found that curiosity does indeed enhance memory, and a number of studies which examined different levels of curiosity found that what one knows or desires to know impacts memory as well.

Bull and Dizney (1973) focused on the differences among retention scores between high-curiosity groups and low-curiosity groups, which were each presented with different pre-questions intended to interest the participants in an essay. What they found was a significant difference between retaining relevant and incidental information for low curiosity pre-questions and high curiosity pre-questions.

In 1976, Kintz and Lippman highlighted an important point about curiosity and memory. Creating and recalling memories, they argued, were different processes: “Creating memories has to do with curiosity and exploration, whereas recalling memories is not closely related to curiosity.” But in 2005, Litman offered the opposite argument, claiming that we are “most curious when we feel the need to recall something that we are close to remembering,” which is commonly known as the “tip of the tongue” phenomenon. We are least curious, he said, when we feel that we already know something. “When we know nothing, we aren’t curious at all. We have nowhere to begin, and therefore no curiosity to drive us to acquire the knowledge.”

Research on visual curiosity confirms these patterns of behaviour. Butler (1955) used rhesus monkeys to study how visual stimulus deprivation impacts visual curiosity. Monkeys deprived from a particular visual stimulus for a long period of time tend to be more curious about the stimulus when they are reintroduced to it. In their own work, Kintz and Lippman (1976) found that “free visual looking time” is a “specific function of curiosity itself and is aroused within the observer through the perception of a particular stimulus.” But not necessarily because curiosity aids recollection. In fact, the researchers noted that curiosity is important in the formation of a memory but not in the recollection once a memory has already been formed.

Boykin and Harackiewicz (1981) found that high levels of uncertainty lead to greater curiosity, which in turn is important for recognition and recall. In their research, subjects who were least certain in their answers were the ones who had the greatest curiosity with the correct answers. On the other hand, those who felt most certain about their answers were least eager to uncover the answers.

A number of articles analysed the neural underpinnings of curiosity and found that satisfying one’s curiosity activated the hippocampus, which is responsible for memory. One study conducted by Kang et al. suggested that curiosity “increases memory through striatal activation because of increased attention and incentive to learn (2009).” Jepma et al. hypothesised that “relief of curiosity is rewarding and enhances learning; this process is mediated by a neural basis for curiosity.” The same concept is discussed by Connolly et. al. (1971).

In 2001, Alberti and Witryol found a positive correlation between curiosity and intellectual performance among third and fifth grade students completing a laboratory task. They also found that intellectual performance was not only linked with student curiosity but also with the teacher ratings of curiosity.

“The research done on curiosity and memory can be further extended by analysing brain activity. Most articles did not look at brain activity but doing so may be a better indicator of curiosity than a survey which could suffer from demand characteristics,” writes Sarah Goldberg, who led the literature review.

On the educational potential of this type of research, Goldberg says: “This topic is important to study because characterising the factors that mediate memory can help in making the educational system better by engaging students more in their classes and therefore raising grades. This can help students if they are able to learn more while studying something they are curious about.”

She adds: “Knowledge of how curiosity and memory interact can aid students in the classroom, leading to an increase in interest and higher levels of learning in schools. Therefore, the knowledge that we attain from these studies can help us shape the curriculum of students in order to maximize their learning potential.”

Different Levels of Curiosity

Some cognitive psychologists harbour the belief that there is more than one type of curiosity. For instance, Jepma, Verdonschot, van Steenbergen, Rombouts and Nieuwenhuis (2012) have identified two different types of curiosity, perceptual and epistemic, which can be classified as either be “specific” or “diversive.” They explain:

“Perceptual curiosity is aroused by sensory factors that are novel, while epistemic curiosity is driven by the desire to learn and acquire information. Therefore, epistemic curiosity leads to intentional learning and perceptual curiosity leads an unintentional way of acquiring information. Furthermore, specific curiosity involves seeking information about a particular topic, and diversive curiosity involves the desire to learn about general information.”

It turns out that different types of curiosity may have different uses when it comes to learning.

Kang et al. (2009) found that people’s ability to recall answers to questions is influenced in part by their ranked curiosity level. The accuracy rates were significantly different between high and middle curiosity items, in which there was greater recall accuracy among high curiosity items than middle curiosity items. Further, middle curiosity items were recalled with greater accuracy than low curiosity items and the results were significantly different. Thus, higher curiosity levels lead to better recollection.

Though it may seem obvious, the literature also confirms that we are more curious about things we don’t already know. Litman, Hutchins, and Russon (2005) found correlations between epistemic curiosity and the various feeling-of-knowing states. When subjects felt they knew something, they were less curious. When they experienced the tip of the tongue phenomenon, they were most curious.

Collins, Litman and Spielberger (2004) explore the idea of curiosity as a personality trait: “Curiosity is present in all humans, but at different levels. Due to the fact that curiosity is present at different levels, it is reasonable to conclude that higher levels of curiosity result in higher levels of learning.”

How to Use Curiosity to Your Advantage

1. Use what interests you to retain what doesn’t.

When you’re curious about something, your brain is primed to absorb all information presented around that topic. That’s why you should pair information that is less interesting to you with information that is more interesting. You will naturally remember the more interesting information, but your brain will also associate the less interesting information with it so you recall that better too.

Boykin (1981) discovered that being asked unusual and interesting questions before exposure to material enabled participants to retain the material that followed the questions because the questions pique interest in the material, and therefore stimulate curiosity.

2. Be okay with expressing uncertainty.

When we’re afraid to admit we don’t know something, we tend to gravitate toward an explanation–any explanation–so that we don’t look bad. But if we convince ourselves we know the answer when we don’t, we limit our ability to learn new things. Don’t be afraid of your own curiosity–it will only enrich your knowledge and broaden your perspective in the long run.

3. Remain aware of what interests you and what doesn’t.

Meta-awareness enhances learning because it allows you to understand your own learning process. Make a list not only of which subjects interest you and which ones don’t but also which topics within those subjects as well as the instructional methods used to present them. Doing so will help you better direct your own curiosity.

4. Learn more, study less.

It sounds like a gimmick, but it’s really just the way the brain works: If you learn something well in the first place, you won’t have to study it as hard later because you will easily remember it. So spend more time becoming curious, pinpointing aspects of a topic that spark your interest, and going into depth in the beginning so you don’t have to pull all-nighters later on down the road.

5. Limit unnecessary learning.

“Some other further studies that would be helpful in filling the gap of knowledge as to how curiosity affects memory are studies that look at how students do in electives versus those that are required,” writes Goldberg. “Having required classes may actually be negative because the grades of students may be lowered and they would not end up remembering as much information from those classes either way.”


Saga Briggs is an author at InformED. You can follow her on Twitter@sagamilena or read more of her writing here.

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