Fostering Curiosity in Your Students

by Marilyn P. Arnone

Adapted and Modified by the Education Oasis Staff


Instilling curiosity in students encourages their desire to learn. When students are magnetized by a new idea or a new situation and are compelled to explore further, regardless of external rewards, they can be said to be truly motivated. In each new project, they discover seeds for a future project or a new question to examine.

Curiosity is a heightened state of interest resulting in exploration. Its importance in motivating scholarship cannot be ignored. Curiosity is also a critical component of creativity. Fostering curiosity and creativity in today's learners is a challenge. Before presenting strategies for fostering curiosity, it will be helpful to provide some background.

Any discussion of curiosity must begin with Daniel Berlyne, considered to be the seminal mind in the study of curiosity. He associated curiosity with exploratory behavior. He identified two forms of exploratory behavior:
  • diversive (e.g., seeking relief from boredom)
  • specific (e.g., uncertainty, conceptual conflict)
It is specific curiosity that is of most interest to educators.

Berlyne's colleague, Day, extended the work, representing it graphically as a curvilinear relationship between level of arousal (or stimulation) and efficiency (1982).

At the optimal level, a person enters the Zone of Curiosity characterized by exploration, excitement, and interest. Below the optimal level, the individual is unmotivated, disinterested, and inefficient. Beyond the optimal level, the individual enters a Zone of Anxiety with resulting behaviors including defensiveness, disinterest, avoidance, and inefficiency.

Other researchers have placed more weight on cognitive and information processing factors in explaining curiosity. Loewenstein (1994), for example, proposed an information-gap theory of curiosity where a feeling of deprivation occurs when an individual becomes aware of a difference between "what one knows and what one wants to know."

Whatever explanation one accepts, it cannot be dismissed that curiosity is a necessary ingredient for motivating scholarship.

Individual Differences

Not everyone is equally curious. Curiosity can be viewed as both a stable personality feature (trait) and as a condition that can be manipulated (state). Naylor (1981) describes trait curiosity as individual differences in capacity to experience curiosity and state curiosity as individual differences in response to a curiosity-arousing situation.

Strategies That Foster Creativity in Students

Most educators would agree that fostering the scholarly attribute of curiosity in learners is an important task. Providing students with adequate guidance while affording them the opportunities for exploration, however, is easier said than done.

As mentioned earlier, not all students are highly curious, and what might stimulate curiosity in some students might result in anxiety for others. It becomes the job of the educator to recognize these differences and control the classroom or other learning environment to accommodate all learners. With this caveat in mind, the following are ten strategies for fostering curiosity.

Strategy 1: Curiosity as a Hook

Use curiosity as a primary motivator at the beginning of a lesson by starting, for example, with a thought-provoking question or surprising statement.

Strategy 2: Conceptual Conflict

Introduce a conceptual conflict when possible. Learners will feel compelled to explore the conflict until it is resolved. When the student has resolved the conceptual conflict, he or she will have a feeling of satisfaction.

Strategy 3: An Atmosphere for Questions

Create an atmosphere where students feel comfortable about raising questions and where they can test their own hypotheses through discussion and brainstorming. (Not only does this foster curiosity, but it also helps to build confidence.)

Strategy 4: Time

Allow adequate time for exploration of a topic. If the teacher has been successful in stimulating curiosity, then learners will want to persist in that exploration.

Strategy 5: Choices

Give students the opportunity for choosing topics within a subject area. For example, in a writing class, the student can explore a topic of his or her interest while accomplishing the goals of the writing task. Being allowed to choose a topic that is intrinsically motivating will help sustain curiosity.

Strategy 6: Curiosity-Arousing Elements

Introduce one or more of the following elements into a lesson to arouse curiosity:
  • Incongruity
  • Contradictions
  • Novelty
  • Surprise
  • Complexity
  • Uncertainty
Learners will desire to explore the source of the incongruity, contradiction, novelty, and so on, and the resulting information will satisfy their curiosity.

Strategy 7: The Right Amount of Stimulation

Be aware of the degree of stimulation in learning situation. Remember, there are individual differences when it comes to curiosity. Some learners will become anxious if the stimulus is too complex, too uncertain, too novel, etc. They may quickly leave the "Zone of Curiosity" and enter the "Zone of Anxiety."

Strategy 8: Exploration

Encourage students to learn through active exploration. Encourage questions such as, "What would happen if . . .?"

Strategy 9: Rewards

Allow the exploration and discovery to be its own reward. Use external rewards judiciously as some studies have shown that extrinsic rewards given for a task that a learner finds intrinsically motivating may dampen future interest in the activity.

Strategy 10: Modeling

Model curiosity. Ask questions. Engage in specific exploration to resolve a question posed, and demonstrate enthusiasm.


When you instill curiosity in children, you are encouraging their desire to learn. That is one of the greatest gifts that you as an educator can give your students.


Berlyne, D. E. (1960). Conflict, arousal, and curiosity. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Day, H. I. (1982). "Curiosity and the interested explorer." NSPI Journal, May, 19-22.

Gorlitz , D. (1987). Curiosity, Imagination, and Play: On the Development of Spontaneous Cognitive and Motivational Processes. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Earl Baum Associates.

Naylor, F. D. (1981). "A state-trait curiosity inventory." Australian Psychologist, 16(2), 172-183.

Examples of Lessons That Spark Curiosity

Using Children’s Natural Curiosity to Lead to Descriptive Writing (Grades: K-2)

Jacob Have I Loved (Grades: 6-8)