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Encouraging students to be curious
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During college, one of my professors advised the class to find interest in whatever we were learning, no matter the course. If I remember correctly, the advice was given as a way to better remember course content, but I now also recognize it as a way to be less miserable. It’s a nice reframing. Thinking “Oooo, that’s interesting!” is a clearer path to happiness than thinking, “Why do I need to learn this?!” But it’s even more than that.
“Each day is an opportunity to learn a little more” (Peters-Collaer, 2023, p. 210).
Curiosity could be defined, in part, as finding interest in, well, whatever. I like to think that I came to college with a strong sense of curiosity, but since I still remember my professor’s advice almost 40 years later, his words must have had some impact on my desire to learn.
My sense of curiosity has certainly served me well. At root, I want to know how stuff works, whatever that stuff might be. As a psychology professor, I want to know how the mind works, but that’s only one example. In a completely different domain, I’m a big fan of industrial tourism. One of my favorite tours was of a wastewater treatment plant. (Steve Chew, you are welcome to use that tidbit in NITOP trivia.) What I learn in one domain may connect to another domain, sometimes in unexpected ways. For example, as you may or may not recall from a recent blog post, I learned that the opening line to the song Jolene was the result of maintenance rehearsal.
Maybe my professor’s advice just opened my mind to one of the great benefits of a liberal arts education. Exposure to a lot of different ideas in a lot of different domains can lead to novel ideas or novel solutions to problems.
As I think about curiosity and how much we value it as a trait in our psychology majors (American Psychological Association, 2013), I wonder if we could be more explicit about what it means to be curious.
Stephen Peters-Collaer, a Ph.D. student in forest ecology at the University of Vermont wrote a one-page essay in Science (freely available) on how curiosity has served him well in his education (2023). Invite your students to read his essay, and then ask students to respond to the following questions as part of an in-class discussion, an asynchronous online discussion, or a short writing assignment.
- The article author, Stephen Peters-Collaer, found his fieldwork crew leader’s enthusiasm for the natural world infectious. Have you had someone in your life have such enthusiasm for something that you found yourself becoming similarly enthusiastic? Please describe.
- Peters-Collaer writes, “Each day is an opportunity to learn a little more.” How might holding such an attitude help a college student?
- The author describes some of the strategies he uses to stay sharp in his more sedentary work. Describe some of the strategies you use to stay mentally sharp.
- The author closes the article with this statement, “I remind myself that any task can present an opportunity to learn—as long as I am open to it.” Would you describe the author as someone who is curious? Why or why not?
American Psychological Association. (2013). APA Guidelines for the undergraduate psychology major: Version 2.0. https://www.apa.org/ed/precollege/about/psymajor-guidelines.pdf
Peters-Collaer, S. (2023). Stay curious. Science, 379(6628), 210.
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