Here’s Why Students Need Intellectual Curiosity to Learn

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What causes a student to want to learn? Is it the same reason why students want to seek out course-specific knowledge?

The standard formula in higher education is to add students and an instructor to a pre-built curriculum, and the result is the creation of a learning environment. To bridge the gap between students and the learning process are planned activities, along with resources to help students engage with the activities. But intellectual curiosity, a process which cannot be controlled, is either inherent or prompted by completion of planned activities or involvement of an instructor.

Learning within a formal classroom environment can be an intellectual activity. When the intellect of a student is engaged, cognition is elevated from automatic thinking to higher order thinking, and possibly critical thinking. Intellectual curiosity then, becomes the desire to understand why, when reading new information, the search for an underlying or fundamental premise within what is read that may be new or different, the desire to seek out challenging views and perspectives, and a time when existing beliefs may be questioned.

As an instructor, you may find it important to understand why students need intellectual curiosity while engaged in your class, and what you can do to help prompt it. While teaching as a traditional instructor, it was easier for me to observe the engagement level of students who were present in class, and ask directed questions to help them think further about the course topics. However, as an online instructor this type of strategy needs to be adapted, and it’s something I’ve learned to do with time and practice. I’ve discovered you need to do more than just ask questions, there needs to be thought given as to how questions are asked, along with the perceived tone of the message posted. What you read next may help provide your teaching practice with new ideas and strategies.

Why Learning Activities are Important

The two most common learning activities built into a traditional online class are asynchronous class discussions and written assignments. The reason why these are the most commonly used activities are twofold. They provide engagement from an individual and group perspective. The purpose of an asynchronous discussion is to guide students to specific information and answer targeted prompts. The assumption built in is that the reading associated with the discussion will prompt reflection and warrant further investigation, leading to intellectual curiosity.

As to written assignments, the same underlying assumption applies. Students are guided to specific information and then the belief is they will reflect upon the information, and through the engagement of their cognition their intellectual curiosity will be prompted. This should then lead to a well-researched, well-developed, and carefully thought-out paper.

For discussions, the reality is that a majority of students write a reactionary post without having read the assigned materials, which means more is needed to prompt an interest in reading the material and an intellectual curiosity. As to written assignments, students who are newer to writing, or want to take the quickest route to completion, either use minimal sources, over-use sources with too many direct quotes, or use inappropriate internet sources. This is why the need for an instructor’s guidance is required, to help direct the attention and focus of students where necessary.

Why Engaging Intellectual Curiosity Matters

Consider first the perspective of casual reading. While the purpose may vary, the intention typically isn’t to gain extensive knowledge or acquire information for long-term memory. In contrast, formal learning is sought with a specific purpose, and the intellect takes on an important role in the acquisition of knowledge for the long-term. First engaged is cognition and mental processing of information while materials are read, once students read the assigned materials and then seek out supplemental readings.

When a student becomes highly engaged mentally, they are more likely to demonstrate critical or higher order thinking, or an ability to reason logically, and write at an elevated level. For example, they can take and process information, and synthesize its meaning. This leads to another condition, mental acuity, or having a sharply focused state of mind. This also comes about as a result of being intellectually curious. However, the ultimate goal of this type of curiosity is to seek knowledge, for the purpose of learning.

How to Prompt Intellectual Development Among Students

For any class, especially an online class, the person who has the most influence on the development of a student’s intellectual development and interest is an instructor. I’ve found it occurs as a result of my direct involvement in the classroom, regardless of the amount of time spent. I say this as I’ve learned to make every interaction with students matter, from demonstrating appreciation for their effort, to prompting their intellectual development. In other words, you don’t have to spend every day in the classroom to be effective. You can take time off and still engage effectively with students for the days you are online.

To prompt the curiosity of your students, perhaps the following strategies can be added to your list of teaching strategies.

#1. Leverage Your Expertise

A pre-built curriculum should never be viewed as something which replaces your experience and background, even if there is nothing additional for you (as the instructor) to initially add to your class. Where your expertise is most needed is with course discussions and feedback. In other words, all aspects of the course in which you are involved in can benefit from the knowledge you hold. What you know can help to make the course topics more interesting and engaging, and create further interest within students.

#2. Ask Frequent Questions

The use of questions can be an effective tool for prompting further thinking about course topics, if utilized in a strategic manner. For example, when I’m involved in course discussions, I always conclude with a question to help extend the conversation. I understand this follows the Socratic form of dialogue; however, I try not to be quite so direct in my approach, given the online class format. I’ve found it is very important to consider the perceived tone of the post and to be as inclusive and welcoming as possible. I’ll also ask a question that draws in the entire class, as I may not always post a response to every student each week.

#3. Become Familiar with the Course Materials

As a Faculty Development Specialist, one of the most common errors I’ve observed is a faculty member who does not refer to course materials during class discussions. I’m not suggesting there is a need to integrate course materials into every discussion response you post; however, it can be helpful to refer to specific points which are important to main topics for the week. I’ve found this useful whenever I find students have not reviewed the assigned materials or missed important points. In addition, if I can help to make the course materials seem interesting, I may be able to help engage students in those materials.

#4. Always Be Curious Yourself

Here’s something to keep in mind: You lead by your example. If you are curious about the course topics, and demonstrate a true excitement for what is being studied, it is likely to influence your students. You will often hear educators talk about being lifelong learners, and this is what it’s about, maintaining a curiosity and interest for acquiring new knowledge. It’s also about asking “why” whenever you read or hear something, along with wanting to learn new information about the subject or subjects you’re teaching. For me, it has been some time since I completed my degrees, which means I need to stay up-to-date in my chosen profession, and I do this by always seeking out new knowledge.  

#5. Use Feedback as a Prompt for Engagement

The task of providing feedback does not have to be straightforward, with a completed rubric and a few rote comments. Instead, you can use this as another opportunity to ask questions and share insight, and continue to prompt interest within your students. I’ll ask questions within my feedback, something as simple that begins with: Have you considered? What you want to think about is the student who has written the paper and made an attempt to understand what was assigned, and then process it in a manner which meets the required prompts. You can continue their thought process with your own prompts, and this includes a question or two. I’ve found some students will send me a message and respond directly, while most will continue to think about the topics and use what I’ve written as a point of reference.

Developing a Highly Engaged Learning Environment

All of the strategies provided above are done with the sole purpose of helping you to develop a learning environment that becomes one in which your students want to read the course materials, seek out information about the course topics, and become curious about what they are learning. I understand that students, as adult learners, should be self-motivated and have their reasons already for wanting to acquire their degree. However, as we know, the reality is online students are often non-traditional in that they are also balancing other responsibilities and likely trying to complete the minimum necessary as quickly as possible.

This means it is going to take the prompts of an instructor to help them become deeply interested and want to devote extra time. The good news is when I’ve made the effort, students do become curious and time becomes less of a factor as they do want learn more about the course subjects. This in turn makes the course more enjoyable for me to be involved in as an instructor, the discussions become more engaging and meaningful for all of us, and suddenly the spark of curiosity leads to a transformative learning experience. While there will always be some students who just want to get by, most students are going to respond positively, and become intellectually stimulated, by an instructor who is highly engaged and eager to share knowledge.

About Dr. Johnson

Dr. Bruce A. Johnson has 35 years of experience teaching and training adults. The first half of his career was spent in the field of Corporate Training and Development, with his last role as Manager of Training and Development.

Then in 2005, he made a transition into the field of distance learning. Over the past 18 years, he has been an online instructor, Faculty Development Specialist, Faculty Director, Faculty Development Manager, and Dissertation Chair.

Dr. Johnson is also an inspirational author, writer, and educator. His life mission is to teach, mentor, write, and inspire others. He has earned a PhD in Postsecondary and Adult Education, a Certificate in Training and Performance Improvement (TPI), a Master’s in Adult Education, and a Master of Business Administration (MBA).

As a scholar practitioner, Dr. J was published in a scholarly journal, and he has been a featured presenter at an international distance learning conference, along with presenting at three faculty conferences. He has also published over 230 online articles about adult learning, higher education, distance learning, online teaching, and mindset development. Dr. J published three books related to higher education, including two about online teaching.

Getting Down to Business: A Handbook for Faculty Who Teach Business.

Transform Adult Education: Expert Teaching Strategies for Educators.

Transform Online Teaching: Expert Strategies and Essential Resources Every Educator Needs.

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