Curiosity – untapping latent energy

Continuing from the post ‘Sublime, curious and distracted – challenging conceptions of learning’, I want to examine curiosity towards finding strategies that can be deployed by the academic and the learner themselves to create an engaging learning environment. Surely, curiosity is a defining human attribute? We exercise our curiosity everyday through life and doing so drives us to learn. Literature on psychology agrees this much and my reading reveals curiosity to have many dimensions (Grossnickle, 2016). Importantly, the academic can adjust the learning environment to promote curious thinking (Kashdan et al., 2004)

Grossnickle explains that curiosity is more than interest. In her literature review she finds curiosity defined in several ways, including as a personality trait, as a person’s need for knowledge or information, and as a motivator for exploratory behaviour.

Nature and nurture

In the same way I approach writing a blog post to reflect my current state of knowledge and my curiosity to understand more, we can see that all of us are curious learners, receptive to knowledge and to opportunities that promise to point us to our personally defined or ill-defined next steps. This, in turn, explains why metacognition and personal acts of reflection are important in the design of active learning: we need to have space to define our next question or motivator. This suggests curiosity is both a matter of nature and nurture – the implications for the academic being that we need to think about the space or situation we create to bring the best out of people and to stimulate their engagement.

Are we closing down curiosity and engagement when we should be opening up thinking?

Secondly, I realise that learning designed around objectives, conclusions, summation, or end points is essentially a matter of closing down or resolving curiosity. This can be experienced as fragmentation in a module-centric course design approach (French, 2015) – a stop-start-stop learning experience. While bringing things to a definite conclusion seems obvious in satisfying the learner, actually, the act of leaving any phase of learning should be a matter of opening new avenues and directions, even if that means asking the learner to reflect on what is next for them. Module design should aim to leave the learner on a high, curious to explore a lingering sense of “So what…? What’s next?” And this suggests the need to think about designing-in course narrative.

This, then, is a matter of designing for liminality: in undergraduate education we can devise courses so that they flow on many levels. One level should accommodate the student’s renegotiation of their learning based on the curiosity they have about their own capabilities and their own state of knowledge, its meaning, and their opportunity to apply it.

We need to consider how we facilitate that flow and transition, especially in a module-centric experience. Who is helping the learner to engage metacognitively to redefine their next steps and next questions? This development around curiosity and negotiation is important: being able to redirect one’s interest and energy is a life skill.

Deep learning

Kang et al. (2009) have found that curiosity-driven learning also enhances the retention of new information. The academic challenge, then, is to consider strategies that seed individual curiosity so that information is interrogated and negotiated. More than presenting interesting facts, it seems that personalised learning strategies should centre on helping the learner to generate deep questions – one’s the don’t promise simple answers, but which promise cognitive adventures, challenges, decision-making, tantalising insight, and a sense of promise. This sounds like game-based learning in which a sense of immersion is fostered creating a space in which the learner is intrigued by acts of decision-making and tantalised by finding out if they allow them to proceed or whether they must retrace their thinking.

Curiosity or just interest?

Grossnickle (2016) observes the need to differentiate between the concepts of curiosity and interest. They are not synonymous, although curiosity may lead to interest.

This is particularly pertinent to the development of active learning environments. Being interesting or being interested in something are essentially passive responses to knowledge. You could preface interest-driven learning with “You need to know this.” It points us to extrinsic forms of engagement and passive strategies.

Developing curiosity, on the other hand, is a precursor to the drive to act upon the desire to know. If the academic designer keeps the learner’s curiosity in mind, they are being student-, and hopefully learning-, centred. Activity design focuses on intrinsic motivation: the learner’s desire rather than their need. While not exactly sugar-coating a bitter pill, adding a dollop of intrigue to learning is one way of using curiosity. For example, the puzzle presented by case-based learning (Yale Porvue Centre) is full of intrigue for the learner, being akin to piecing together the clues of a mystery and applying knowledge and skills in a process of deductive reasoning.

Being curious equates to a person’s drive to know, being aroused in such a way that they must satiate their desire: getting to the bottom of something. Grossnickle (2016) (with reference to Arnone and Grabowsky 1992; Berlyne, 1954; Litman 2005) offers this definition of curiosity: the desire for new knowledge, information, experiences, or stimulation to resolve gaps or experience the unknown.

A desire for agency – exploring, knowing and escaping

Agency and curiosity go hand-in-hand then. Not only do we expect the learner to respond, we expect their response to be strong and self- (or team-) directed. Within their response, the learner will have formulated the goal they seek to achieve in pursuit of resolving their curiosity.

This promise of achieving a goal, which is very clear in project-based learning design for example, seems to be at odds with needing to keep curiosity alive. It’s not. Learning is best thought of the meta cognitive dimension of such task-driven learning: by taking one step back to observe and scrutinise what we are doing, we engage on two levels – the level of doing, making or acting, and the level of reflecting in, on, and through learning. This second reflective level is about making sense of a situation and generalising knowledge so that it can be applied to future situations.

For the academic designer, this suggests curiosity may take the learner through a series of challenges each of which provides feedback to confirm or invalidate their thinking. At the same time, the goal (as end point) must be denied as the learner’s curiosity is reignited.

Curiosity is enhanced through ambiguity (i.e. there being no single right answer and plenty of possibilities). Hints and incremental feedback are part of the idea of exploration (Metcalfe et al., 2021).

As in game design, the design of learning challenges must accommodate harmless and fruitful false starts – hitting an obstacle must help the learner’s deduction and spur them on further.

Curiosity, in learning design, increasingly feels like an interplay of irresistible exploration and knowing. Learning is about satisfying a hunger and thirst for knowledge and experiencing a sense of wonderment. Wonderment, or enjoyment of knowing, includes a degree of titillation, which Metcalfe et al. (2021) describe as “a desire for agency” which “holds that in order to take advantage of the opportunity to obtain the answer by their own efforts, when curious, people may wait.” They do not opt to passively receive a neatly packaged answer, but rather they are more interested in the feeling of getting the answer for themselves. Designing for curiosity involves valuing and connecting a sense of personal achievement with the intended learning outcome or desirable knowledge state.

A focus on curiosity suggests that a student can be motivated to engage if they are led to believe possibilities exist through escaping simple unsatisfactory explanations, reasoning or contradictions. The use of critical thinking techniques may help a learner to realise that they need to go further to cure their itch.

I’ll leave you with a question, in case you are not yet curious about curiosity: how does curiosity relate to creativity and criticality? I will explore that in the next post…


French, S. (2015). The benefits and challenges of modular higher education curricula. Issues and Ideas paper, Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education. Online at:

Grossnickle, E.M. (2016). Disentangling Curiosity: Dimensionality, Definitions, and Distinctions from Interest in Educational Contexts. Educational Pschological Review, 28(23-60. DOI 10.1007/s10648-014-9294-y

Kashdan, T. B., Rose, P., & Fincham, F. D. (2004). Curiosity and exploration: facilitating positive subjective experiences and personal growth opportunities. Journal of Personality Assessment, 82, 291–305. doi:10.1207/s15327752jpa8203_05.

Metcalfe, J., Kennedy-Pyers, T. & Vuorre, M. (2021). Curiosity and the desire for agency: wait, wait … don’t tell me!. Cognitive Research, 6(69).

About Andrew Middleton

NTF, PFHEA, committed to active learning, co-operative pedagogies, media-enhanced teaching and learning, authentic learning, postdigital learning spaces. Key publication: Middleton, A. (2018). Reimagining Spaces for Learning in Higher Education. Palgrave.
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