Curiosity as a Learning Tool
As a curious individual, I ask myself dozens of questions every day: What type of insect is that? What did this street look like 100 years ago? How does color affect people’s moods? I’m the kind of person who is addicted to learning. However, overworked students (and adults!) often lose sight of their natural childhood curiosity.
When it comes to academic research, high school students’ main goal is to get their papers done quickly. It’s important for us, as librarians and teachers, to reignite their innate curiosity. According to a study published in the journal Neuron, “participants showed improved memory for information that they were curious about and for incidental material learned during states of high curiosity” (Mattheis, Gelman, and Ranganath 2014). Fostering curiosity in students may facilitate their use of critical thinking, which can help them become competent researchers. This will not only set them up for the research they will be expected to perform in college and beyond, but will also create research experiences that are enjoyable and rewarding.
The Purpose of Research Questions
The process of research can be confusing to students. Whether they choose a subject themselves or are assigned one, they can fall into the trap of trying to find information to support their existing knowledge of the topic. John Hayward, an English teacher and presenter at this year’s Empire State Library Network Pillars Symposium, says “too many times students begin their research with a conclusion already formed” (Hayward 2021). Research, he asserts, should grow you instead of just showing you what you already know.
In this contentious time of misinformation about everything from how Covid variants spread to politicians’ actions, all fact seekers are victims of confirmation bias. We search for answers that will prove what we already believe to be true. To help students become responsible researchers, we can teach them how to avoid this fallacy and instead search using a strong research question as their guide.
Helping Students Form Research Questions
A common problem among students when they’re given the task of coming up with a research question is that they have trouble connecting the research question to what their actual research will entail. Often, students approach research with the idea of gathering information. While this is part of what they’ll be doing, it doesn’t get to the heart of the process. In order to help students understand their search for answers, we can stress the fact that their efforts will be best spent by constantly evaluating and analyzing possible ideas and pathways. In this vein, we can urge them to choose a research question that they keep coming back to, checking to see if their findings answer their question and if not, searching for more relevant answers.
Many times, students choose questions that are too broad such as “How did the animal rights movement get started?” While they may be able to answer this question with some facts, they will have a hard time organizing and expanding their research or writing a paper that sticks to one focus. A better question might be, “How do the issues brought up by the animal rights movement affect biomedical research?” On the other hand, sometimes students pose questions that are too specific, which would limit them and make for a frustrating research experience. For example, asking “How did Billy Joel’s training routine help him succeed during his August 2019 concerts?” is too narrow to produce a comprehensive research paper. Instead, broadening the topic by asking, “How do musicians’ training practices affect the success of their tours?” might enable students to open up the search in more productive ways.
Only the Beginning
Forming a research question is only the beginning of a complex process that students engage in when doing research. With a strong, curiosity-fueled research question as their base, students will find that the next steps, including organizing information, evaluating sources, and drawing conclusions, will flow more easily.
Though it’s not easy to get high school students excited about research, helping them explore and create interesting questions can be a way to engage them. Just like having teens choose their own books raises reading motivation, giving students agency about their learning can help increase their interest levels and reawaken sparks that will get them excited about research.
Gruber, Matthias J., Bernard D. Gelman, and Charan Ranganath. 2014. “States of Curiosity Modulate Hippocampus-Dependent Learning via the Dopaminergic Circuit.” Neuron 84 (2): 486–96.
Hayward, John. 2021. “What Today’s Students Need to Know About Research.” The Pillars Symposium | Empire State Library Network. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BkPuzG1_7HM&list=PLqVc6vyNp3Luz2nwaVUiJhbAHi1SSbCzv&index=5&t=627s.
Author: Karin Greenberg
Karin Greenberg is the librarian at Manhasset High School in Manhasset, New York. She is a former English teacher and writes book reviews for School Library Journal. In addition to reading, she enjoys animals, walking, hiking, and spending time with her family. Follow her book account on Instagram @bookswithkg.