Using Curiosity Gaps to Enhance Student Engagement

19 Jun 2020 4:24 PM | Anonymous

By Laura Freberg, Ph.D., California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, and Stephanie Cacioppo, Ph.D., University of Chicago.

All of us have been there. Our herculean efforts to assemble fascinating experiences for students are met not with rapt attention, but with mobile phones and bored expressions. The goal of promoting engagement seems impossibly elusive, especially when coupled with COVID-19 adjustments to our means of instruction.

What does it mean to be “engaged” with course material? Our dictionaries tell us that to engage means to “make an effort to understand.” We can present the most amazing class experiences, but if the students don’t meet us halfway, it’s all for naught.

How then, do we encourage students to make an effort to understand? To answer that question, we need to dig deeper into students’ motivations. Although we all know the dangers of introspection, it might be useful to contemplate what drives your own engagement with psychology. What attracted you to this amazing field of study? What were you trying to accomplish in your own search for knowledge?

In this personal search, you might find yourself thinking, “I was so curious about what makes people do what they do!” The concept of curiosity fits rather nicely with our construct of engagement. To be curious means that you have a “strong desire to know or learn something.” In other words, curiosity is what leads to engagement.

Psychology has a rich history of examining curiosity. William James (1899) called it “the impulse toward better cognition.” Pavlov (1927) called it the “what-is-it” impulse. More recently, Kidd and Hayden (2014) refer to curiosity as a “drive state for information.” Curiosity has been presented as a trait, whether that is an aspect of openness to experience, novelty-seeking, need for cognition, intrinsic motivation, tolerance for ambiguity, sensation-seeking, and even IQ. Curiosity seems developmental, as each leaf, twig, and bug encountered on a walk with a two-year-old is special.

Does this mean that curiosity is fixed?  Are we doomed to work with students whose engagement is simply low? No! Looking around us, we see many situations in which people from all walks of life are perched on the edge of their seats waiting to see what will happen next. Will Elizabeth Barrett and Mr. Darcy finally get together? Who will sit on the Iron Throne? What is going on in Tiger King? Is there a person among us who hasn’t clicked on click-bait at least once? We maintain, with an homage to Carol Dweck, that curiosity is not fixed but rather something that we can grow.

A somewhat neglected article by George Lowenstein, published in 1994, provides a road map to growing curiosity. Lowenstein argued that curiosity happens in a special place between what we know and what we need to know, or within the so-called “curiosity gap.” Think about the following—are you more distracted when listening to another person speak on the phone, or when you overhear a conversation at a restaurant? Most people say the former is more distracting. Lowenstein would argue that listening to a phone conversation naturally elicits curiosity from us, because there is a gap between what we’re hearing from the person who is present and what the entire conversation is all about. We try to fill in the gaps! A master of manipulating the curiosity gap is the tech giant LinkedIn. All of us have received notifications saying, “someone has looked at your profile.” We ask ourselves with considerable curiosity, “who could that be?” Then LinkedIn provides a solution. By “upgrading to Premium,” you can close the gap. The user interface (UX) community is far more familiar with George Lowenstein than most psychologists are, and they use the curiosity gap constantly to push us in a particular direction, usually toward a purchase.

How can psychology instructors harness the curiosity gap to promote student engagement? Again, let’s think about tasks that make us feel curious, like playing Trivial Pursuit or completing a puzzle. Two principles stand out: 1) Curiosity is highest when confidence is moderate, and 2) Curiosity is highest when learning the solution is valuable. Both principles can be applied in the classroom with a minimum of effort.

We see the impact of confidence on engagement in our classes every day. Students with too little confidence shut down. The gap between what they already know and what they’re being asked to learn is too great. These students might benefit from many low-stakes practice opportunities and the presentation of material in small chunks. Regular formative feedback gently nudges them to greater confidence. The gap narrows to a manageable width. Then there are those who come into our classes thinking that they already “know” human behavior. We need to rattle their confidence a bit, perhaps by addressing common psychological myths and demonstrating the gaps that we are trying to fill with our own research programs.

More specifically, we can take advantage of the natural “puzzles” of our field. In a presentation at NITOP 2020, Daniel Willingham noted that students learn surface facts rather than deeper principles because facts are easy to understand and will appear on tests. He believed that deeper thinking could be stimulated by framing lessons that invite problem solving. Focusing on the questions that drove classic studies (what was Stanley Milgram actually trying to figure out?) and using case-based and problem-based learning activities can energize a classroom.

A simple redo of how we ask in-class questions can also promote considerable curiosity. Ask a question with several alternatives. After students have answered, knock out one of the incorrect (but popular) alternatives and let them try again. Promote discussion as students work out the answer. As the alternatives are knocked out, you will hear the volume of the discussion go up as students argue for their favorite answer.

One of our favorite approaches is to start each lesson by asking students what questions they have about the topic. What do you need to know about memory? What do you want to know about psychological disorders? Then use their questions to frame your presentations and activities.

These approaches manage the issue of moderate confidence, but we still must address the matter of valuable learning. In psychology, this should be easy. Every topic we cover has personal relevance, but sometimes students need our help to make the connections. As Sue Frantz is fond of saying, “what does my neighbor the plumber need to know about action potentials?” If the answer is “nothing,” we might reconsider covering the material. With all due respect to Sue, we think her neighbor should know about action potentials if he is contemplating adjusting his neurochemistry with either recreational or prescription substances. In general, though, we need to make the “so-what” factor of our material very explicit.

William James, in his 1899 Talks to Teachers on Psychology, set lofty goals for us, including making students remember our class until their dying days. By harnessing students’ curiosity gaps and illustrating the everyday value of our field, we don’t guarantee that we’ll meet James’ criteria completely, but our students might start to put down the social media and pay attention.


James, W. (1899). Talks to teachers on psychology: And to students on some of life’s ideals. New York: Holt.

Kidd, C., & Hayden, B. Y. (2015). The psychology and neuroscience of curiosity. Neuron88(3), 449–460. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2015.09.010

Loewenstein, G. (1994). The psychology of curiosity: A review and reinterpretation. Psychological Bulletin, 116(1), 75-98.

Pavlov, I.P. (1927). Conditioned reflexes: An investigation of the physiological activity of the cerebral cortex (G. V. Anrep, Trans.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Willingham, D. (January, 2020). Teaching students to think critically about psychology. General Session presentation at NITOP, St. Petersburg, FL.

Authors' Bios

Laura Freberg. Laura Freberg is Professor of Psychology at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. She received her bachelors, masters, and PhD from UCLA and conducted her dissertation research with Robert Rescorla of Yale University. Freberg co-authors Discovering Psychology: The Science of Mind (3rd ed.) and authors Discovering Behavioral Neuroscience: An Introduction to Biological Psychology (4th ed.), both for Cengage, and is lead author on Research Methods in Psychological Science (2017) for Top Hat. Freberg is the Psychology Consultant for the New York Times InEducation program. She served as the 2018-2019 President of the Western Psychological Association.

Stephanie Cacioppo. Named a “Rising Star” by the Association for Psychological Science for her innovative and outstanding contributions to the science of psychology and woman’s health, Dr. Steph Cacioppo is the world authority on social brain dynamics and wellness. Her work focuses on the dynamics of emotions and social connections and their impact on brain health and human performance. The first female President of the Society for Social Neuroscience, Dr. Steph also served as the director of the Affective Science Center of Excellence at the Mamba Sports Academy and is Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience from the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine.

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