What is “interest”?

I think one of the questions that plagues teachers, and maybe math teachers in particular, is how to get students interested in the material. When we’re handed a curriculum and told to teach, it can be hard to find ways to get students on the hook.

I came across a great blog post the other day about interest in math classes. If you hop over to that link, you can find a brief overview of the psychology of interest.

One of the most useful ideas is the description of the two “appraisals” we make that lead us to decide something is interesting:

The first appraisal is an evaluation of an event’s novelty-complexity, which refers to  evaluating an event as new, unexpected, complex, hard to process, surprising, mysterious, or obscure. . . The second, less obvious appraisal is an evaluation of an event’s comprehensibility. Appraisal theories would label this appraisal a coping-potential appraisal because it involves people considering whether they have the skills, knowledge, and resources to deal with an event. In the case of interest, people are “dealing with” an unexpected and complex event—they are trying to understand it. In short, if people appraise an event as new and comprehensible, they will find it interesting.

As we attempt to interest students, I think we often focus on the latter—making sure students feel the material is comprehensible.  This was a nice reminder, I think, that we need to balance that, and also make sure the material is new, complex, and puzzling at the same time.

If you’re interested in talking more about these ideas, please sign up for the next “How Students Learn” webinar on December 11!