Beware the pitfalls of making lectures ‘interesting’ and focus on curiosity instead

Conflating ‘interesting’ with ‘entertaining’ and getting caught in a never-ending loop of shinier and shinier edutainment should be shunned in favour of cultivating sustained interest

Lee Li Neng's avatar
National University of Singapore
27 Jul 2022
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Academics and lecturers should not conflate interesting with entertaining
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How can we make our lessons more interesting? Should we make our lessons more interesting? In an era where we are engaged in a monumental battle for students’ attention, can we afford not to?

So many questions. But let’s start at the beginning: what exactly is interest? Psychologists describe it as an emotion that causes attention to be focused on something, and two important features elicit it:

1. Novelty and complexity (Is it something new? Surprising? Complex?)

2. Comprehensibility (Can I understand it?)

Therefore, interest is intrinsically linked to both the expertise and experience of the individual. Interest, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, and what fascinates one group of people can leave others flummoxed.

If our aim is to make our lessons more interesting to as many people as possible, our lessons need to be as novel and complex, yet comprehensible, to as many people as possible. There are several issues here.

First is the danger that we conflate “interesting” with “entertaining” and end up focusing on producing edutainment, instead of primarily engaging in education. The last thing we should do is engage in a race against entertainers (such as social media influencers) in the hope our efforts can at least yield some attention from students in return. For many educators this is like bringing a knife to a gunfight.

Second, there is the hedonic treadmill. Psychologists describe this phenomenon as “what used to bring us pleasure no longer does so”. Essentially, we get used to the positive emotions that certain things evoke in us. Thus, for example, our old phones no longer bring us the same buzz as before, so we feel we need the newer, shinier, more feature-laden model. When it comes to education, this means we might find ourselves not just up against entertainers but engaged in an ever-escalating educational arms race in which we need to produce newer, “shinier” content just to garner some attention.

Third is the potential for catering to decreasing attention spans. When recording lectures, the dominant advice has been that they should be broken down into bite-sized videos, no longer than 10 to 15 minutes each. The warning was that any longer and we run the risk of students simply losing interest and dropping off. As a result, complex arguments need to be simplified, with an emphasis on the delivery of the main points and conclusion instead of the journey itself. Comments like TL;DR are emblematic of this phenomenon. Yet while short videos might be more interesting and/or entertaining, the question is: at what cost?

It’s important to clarify that I’m not advocating that we make lessons less interesting or not interesting at all. Boring lessons are a sure-fire way to create disengagement. Rather, it is the pursuit of making lessons “more interesting” as a primary goal that is the danger here.

Making lessons interesting to garner students’ attention is simply a means to an end. It is pertinent to remind ourselves that the end goal is really about cultivating sustained interest, which hopefully leads to the development of curiosity in the longer run. Curiosity, as argued by Barry Schwartz and more recently Tim Harford, is one of the intellectual virtues that we should aim to develop, as it helps move the individual beyond simply gaining cognitive skills.

But how can we go about this? One suggestion is to model what sustained interest looks like, specifically in terms of asking good questions. When given opportunities to ask questions, it’s often difficult for novices to differentiate between relevant and important questions in a particular discipline. What makes one question better than another? And why? By deliberately making such key questions the focus of the curriculum it exposes students to them.

Educators should also allow students to ask questions anonymously after each lecture, then curate the best student-generated questions and use them to shape the curriculum while also answering them in the lesson. Doing so also allows teachers (as experts) to develop cognitive empathy with novices, where the questions generated provide valuable feedback on how novices see the world and what inherently interests them.

A further suggestion is to offer autonomy to students to shape the curriculum. Sustained interest is most likely to be developed when individuals are given a choice to pursue what sparked their interest in the first place, and it places ownership of learning back with the student. One simple option is to allow students to write a paper on a topic of their choice within the scope of the module, encouraging them to dig beyond what was given to them. A more extensive choice is allowing students to design their own modules. At the National University of Singapore, where I work, the “Design Your Own Module” (DYOM) scheme allows students to pursue self-directed learning by creating their own curriculum together with a faculty member.

If intellectual virtues such as curiosity are valuable traits, it may be pertinent for educators to explore various means of effectively cultivating it – and equip ourselves to do so.

Lee Li Neng is senior lecturer in the department of psychology, and associate director at the Center for Development of Teaching and Learning, at the National University of Singapore.

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