How to Foster Curiosity in the Classroom

Do you ever wish your students had better motivation? One definition of curiosity is an intrinsic motivation to learn. Though we don’t assess students for their curiosity, it’s an essential characteristic for science, the humanities, and skilled trades alike. 

A study in the Association for Psychological Science found that personality traits like curiosity can be as important as intelligence in determining a student’s academic success. Despite its importance, most of our curricula and educational assessments focus on answers rather than questions and critical thinking.

How, then, can you stimulate curiosity in your classroom?

Why Curiosity is Important in Education

Before we can answer that, let’s take a look at why curiosity is important in learning contexts.

1. Curiosity Results in Better Learning Outcomes

A study published in Neuron found that students retain better memory of material learned during states of “high curiosity”—with better immediate and delayed recall. This was also true of incidental material, or information presented that was unrelated to the core lesson or topic.

2. Curiosity Facilitates Adaptability and Lifelong Learning

A study by ESMI and Boston Consulting Group found that 37% of the top 20 skills requested for the average U.S. job have changed since 2016. This “Great Disruption” means that the coursework your students learn today may not be relevant in 10 years.

Curiosity is the spark to help students engage with the world around them, learn new skills, and contribute to solutions for the changing environments and challenges they’ll face.

3. Curiosity Creates Empathy

Beyond learning outcomes, curiosity makes your students more empathetic with the ability to look beyond assumptions to create better human connections. Empathy is invaluable for teamwork and making connections with customers or patients in their future careers.

“When you approach interactions with curiosity and a desire to understand people on a human-to-human level, you’ll naturally begin to engage more deeply,” explains Jeffrey Davis, author of Tracking Wonder. “ Instead of immediately reacting or making a knee-jerk assessment, this form of curiosity helps you become more interested in what another person has to say, even if you don’t share the same values or opinions.” 

4 Ways to Integrate Curiosity in Your Teaching

While curiosity is a trait—and some people are more inherently curious than others—curiosity is also a temporary state that you can activate. With enough practice, students will begin to approach the world with more open-ended, curious thinking by default. Here are a few ways you can stimulate this in the classroom.

1. Lean Into Questions and Uncertainty

Albert Einstein once said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.” 

Asking questions stimulates what students already know and pushes them into a state of uncertainty. In the Neuron study, researcher Matthias J. Gruber defines describes states of high curiosity as question-evoked activities where students began to anticipate responses, enhancing their engagement and retention.

You can activate this by asking open-ended questions or by prompting students to ask their own questions. Try presenting material at the start of class— a photo, problem, or story—and ask them to write as many questions as they can about it. This method is effective because it normalizes inquiry and uncertainty—showing your students that it’s wonderful not to know all the answers.

2. Build Anticipation

Another way to think about this curiosity state is as an “anticipation period.” Try starting your class with a riddle or by asking students to make predictions about an experiment.

This will activate their current knowledge and spark their brain to notice and fill in any gaps in learning.  

Another way that you can build anticipation is by asking students to guess the connection between two seemingly unconnected things or people. Students will need to pay attention to clues in the class lesson to make the connection.

3. Use Gamification

While you build anticipation and uncertainty, remember that you do need to stimulate neural pathways by providing students with answers and rewards. Too much uncertainty without a conclusion can lead to frustration. Individual or competitive gamification can work well as an incentive, but avoid being overly reliant on external reward systems.

Over time, stimulating the neural pathways associated with reward can train students to view curiosity as its own reward and seek it out.

4. Use Tactile Learning

Bringing tactile objects into your classroom can encourage curiosity by allowing students free time for investigation. For instance, you could teach a lesson about discoverability by presenting students with an unfamiliar piece of equipment and asking them to find out what they can do with it. Let your students tinker.

Even in a virtual learning context, you can ask students to bring a household object, take it apart and put it back together, or use it in a new way. When you can’t go into a lab or the field, you can use virtual reality and augmented reality to let students investigate and deploy hands-on learning from anywhere.

Training Up the Next Generation of Curious Learners

If you feel like your students are only memorizing answers instead of asking critical questions, shift your focus to problem-framing and helping students investigate the world.

Curiosity is the best gift you can leave your students that will stay with them long after they’ve forgotten your test answers. Try one (or all four!) of these approaches to see higher classroom engagement, better recall, and a lifetime of discovery.

Need better tools to get started? Give your students the gift of curiosity with SkillMill’s immersive simulation courses, and watch as they develop a genuine thirst for knowledge, improved troubleshooting abilities, and honed critical thinking skills. SkillMill incorporates gamified 3D and VR simulations and problem-based scenarios to stimulate curiosity in the classroom. By engaging students with interactive learning experiences, students are empowered to ask critical questions, develop open-ended thinking, and approach the world with a sense of exploration and curiosity.