What is interest? It is a cognitive response to a stimulus, a reaction to an environment (Krapp et al., 1992).
Why should you care? The amount of interest a person can have for a given topic falls within a continuum; the more interest they have in something, the more likely they are to want to learn about it. This is no surprise. The key for us as learning experience designers, however, is designing situations that spark that initial interest, and then sustaining it through learning. An extremely successful design goes further; it allows learners to take their own initiatives as they refer to the topic as their own personal interest, and seek knowledge and skills that extend beyond what was offered in the course design.
3 Examples of Interest as it Relates to Learning
Interest can be described in four levels: Situational, sustained, individual, and passionate. Below are examples of how the first three levels relate to learning as a person becomes increasingly interested. Read here for more information about harmonious and obsessive passion.
Situational interest, that first spark, is instantaneous and fleeting, and can be suddenly evoked. Situational interest has a minimal effect on learning and cognition. For example, standing by the window, we glance to see what caused the blur of red at a snow-covered bird feeder; the motion and color created an instant situational interest. If red cardinals are a common site for you, you might quickly lose interest.
Motion, color, and sound are excellent tools for instantly grabbing the attention of your learners’ senses. But be careful; too much can be overwhelming, become boring, or distract from content. Strategically pepper moments of situational interest into places where people tend to drift.
Sustained interest is a more stable interest. When you have a sustained interest in something you have an increase in emotions within that domain, which causes you to become more engaged, to focus, and gain more knowledge (Krapp et al., 1992). In other words, a sustained interest occurs when emotions are stirred, which supports learning. If you only have a fleeting interest in the red blur at the bird feeder, for example, you would look at it briefly and then get back to what you were doing. But, if you find the bird aesthetically pleasing (Dewey, 1934) or novel, or you notice a pattern you want to decipher, your interest will be sustained; you will continue to watch the bird. Emotions can be negative as well; which explains why we can sometimes have a sustained interest in things that are shocking or frightening.
There are many ways to add emotional opportunities to learning designs. Be sure to include difficult yet manageable challenges and safe failures. Depending on the content, consider first-person role play, real-world examples, and actual footage.
Individual interest is a personal affinity, a self-declared interest in a domain. It is portable; it is less dependent on external variables, and can manifest in self-directed goal setting, action, and engagement. A person with an individual interest in red cardinals, for example, will remain engaged with the idea of cardinals even when not looking at them through the window. Their interest might drive them to search for information about what cardinals eat, or their lifetime mating habits. The interest is no longer situation-dependent, and has created a drive to learn more.
As a learning experience designer, I am thrilled if people leave my courses inspired to learn more, wanting to join communities of practice, or self-identifying as a person with an individual interest in the domain that was covered.