Curiosity, the trait concerning an individual’s propensity to seek new information, is highly variable. We know this personally; some topics have us dying to know more about, while others bore us to death. Why do some things coax curiosity out of us? And if curiosity drives us to seek new information, what is its role in learning especially when it comes to us, as university students?

Developmentally speaking, curiosity is crucial. It is observable in information-seeking, a type of behavior in young children that is marked by the posing of “curiosity questions.” When children encounter things that interest them or don’t match with pre-existing notions of the world, they seek further knowledge by asking questions. This is the mythical phase of toddler-dom where they seem to ask questions about anything and everything. Through this endless questioning, children are able to construct intuitive theories that help them better predict and interact with the world around them.

As we grow into the world, we may not need to be constantly posing questions to those around us. But, because we never fully stop learning, curiosity remains a useful trait. Scientists investigating the associations between learning and curiosity have found that curiosity is associated with better learning outcomes, including enhancing memory recall. 

In a study investigating this association, researchers used the task of trivia questions to measure participants’ curiosity about the trivia answers. It was found that activity in the caudate regions of the brain, which are responsible for curiosity, learning and memory, among other cognitive functions, increased when participants guessed the answers to trivia incorrectly. When participants were asked the same questions one to two weeks later, the higher curiosity questions were correlated with better recall of answers. It was concluded that curiosity enhances memory recall, thus facilitating the process of learning new information.

So, curiosity is helpful to us learners in that it helps us remember things better, but what do we know about what piques our curiosity, and what doesn’t? In the previous study, why did curiosity about the correct answer increase when participants were incorrect? A popular theory is that curiosity is triggered by the detection of incomplete knowledge. 

The findings of a study that utilized trivia questioning, similar to the previous one, support this theory. Participants were posed with trivia questions such as “For which president was the blueberry jelly bean made?” and then asked to provide their best guess, an estimate of how close their guess was, whether they thought their guess was correct and their curiosity about the correct answer. Once they saw the correct answer, they were asked to indicate how surprised they were. When analyzing the data, researchers of the study found that curiosity of the correct answer peaked when participants believed they were close to learning the information, but had guessed it incorrectly. 

To put it in terms of a scenario you have probably encountered, it’s like when you have poured over the details of a midterm topic and found out that you were wrong on a question you thought you knew. You feel the need to know the right answer so that you can come to terms with your previous erroneous understanding. 

Ultimately, the researchers posited that curiosity is best predicted by a learner’s metacognitive estimate of their own knowledge, while learning is better predicted by a measure of existing knowledge. They also pointed out a feedback loop: First, a learner’s perception of their prior knowledge is related to greater curiosity for new information; second, curiosity is associated with better learning outcomes. 

Following this line of reasoning, we may see why we have curiosity for things that we have a basic understanding of but don’t fully have figured out. As the researchers highlight, learners’ awareness of their current state of knowledge is important. Most importantly, however, they emphasize that their findings support the idea that educators should aim to provide material that is just beyond the level that has been mastered. 

As students, we don’t have any say in the course material we take on. But next time you are faced with a looming expanse of information foreign to you, take some time to identify what you do know. By taking it one step at a time, maybe you can trigger curiosity and make the process of learning a more enjoyable, less stressful experience.