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Unleashing the Power of Curiosity

Frank V. Kowalski,

Professor of Physics

Colorado School of Mines

AND Susan E. Kowalski,

Research Associate Colorado School of Mines

These are exciting times for anyone interested in “applying evidence-based strategies to enrich student learning” – the motto on the banner of this blog. Gifted teachers have always had a sixth sense about what works well (or not so well) in their classroom – the looks in the eyes of students, the quality of the discussion generated, the restlessness of the students, etc., all guide that evaluation. However, this conclusion about what works isn’t always easy to quantify and to support with clear, unequivocal data.

But rather than just try to show the efficacy of a particular pedagogical model, neuroscience and cognitive science have exploded in the past few decades to produce unparalleled insights into how learning actually occurs (J.D. Bransford, A.L. Brown, & R.R. Cocking, eds.). These fields are so active, it is often difficult to keep abreast of the latest findings and how we can take advantage of them in our classrooms.

To see what we mean, think about curiosity. As STEM teachers, we see curiosity as the first step of the scientific method in action. Something piques someone’s interest, and wonderful things can happen in the laboratory or in the science classroom! Looking at a broader range of topics beyond just STEM, educators have long acknowledged the importance of getting students curious about something to motivate learning. John Dewey and Maria Montessori relied heavily on this cornerstone, and it is fundamental in inquiry-based and project-based learning as well. Our own interest in curiosity stems from some work we did to nurture student creativity, which led us to wondering about—OK, we’ll go ahead and say it:  being curious about – the role of curiosity in creativity. In spite of wide general interest in curiosity and nodding agreement that it is a good thing, it is difficult to find evidence that isolates it as a factor that improves learning.

Last fall, however, neuroscientists from University of California at Davis published some intriguing findings about the impact of curiosity on learning (Gruber, Gelman, Ranganath, 2014). Instead of designing an experiment to look at learning gains in “curious” vs. “not curious” students, they used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to look for changes in the brain during states of high curiosity. They investigated how brain activity prompted by this strong intrinsic motivator compared with brain regions responsive to extrinsic motivation, and how this state of aroused curiosity enhanced learning, even of incidental material. In brief, for a series of trivia questions, subjects self-assessed their curiosity about each question, then anticipated receiving the associated answer during a 14 second delay. During this waiting period, subjects viewed a photo of an emotionally neutral face, which was in this case the “incidental material,” as it was unrelated to the trivia question.  fMRI scans were conducted during this 14 second anticipation period and when the answers were revealed. Finally, students were later given memory tests for both the faces and the answers to the trivia questions.

The findings of this work include:

  • Even though curiosity is considered an intrinsic motivator, some parts of the brain that were active when curiosity was elicited are key regions responsive to extrinsic motivation and are involved in pleasure and reward (dopamine transmitters). Other parts of the brain that were activated by curiosity are involved in the creation of memories (hippocampus).

  • When the subjects were highly curious (both as self-assessed and as determined by the brain scans), they had better retention of both the targeted material and the incidental material. This indicates that in both cases, similar neural mechanisms promote the influence of curiosity on learning.

  • These curiosity-enhanced learning gains were driven by the anticipatory activity, rather than by the processing of the answers, and lasted at least 24 hours.

In summary, these researchers conclude that their work “highlight[s] the importance of stimulating curiosity to create more effective learning experiences.”  It seems that the more curious our students are about a given topic, the easier it will be for them to learn – not just about that topic, but about other things as well. This heightened ability to learn could be harnessed to enhance learning of material considered “boring” by embedding it in topics that stimulate student curiosity.

If curiosity somehow prepares the brain for better learning, how can we help our students be more curious? We have been exploring that question for the past few years in the STEM environment.  Although young children make tremendous learning gains through their curiosity, it seems that university students do not always remember how to be curious in the classroom.  With practice and guidance, however, their curiosity can be cultivated.

To practice asking questions that can lead to interesting places, we have demonstrated to students “categories” of questions related to a model being considered (Kowalski, F.V., &  Kowalski, S.E.). With practice, they become more fluent in being able to ask questions in different categories. We consider this to reflect increased curiosity. If current research findings hold true, this may in turn lead to better learning.

References & Resources

For a highly regarded overview of recent advances in our understanding of learning, see: How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School,  National Research Council, J.D. Bransford, A.L. Brown, & R.R. Cocking, eds., National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 2000. Available online at

Gruber, M.J., Gelman, B. D., & Ranganath, C. (2014, October). States of curiosity modulate hippocampus-dependent learning via the dopaminergic circuit.  Neuron (84), 1-11. Available online at

For a description of the curiosity categories and data from a university course in which they were used, see Kowalski, F.V., &  Kowalski, S.E. (2012, October). Enhancing curiosity using interactive simulations combined with real-time formative assessment facilitated by open-format questions on tablet computers. ASEE/IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference,Seattle, WA. Available online at

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