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Curiosity may improve memory
MONDAY, OCTOBER 27, 2014 09:52 AM

Teachers may have the Common Core State Standards to help guide their lessons, but they have another tool as well: curiosity. Most educators intuitively know that a curious student is more likely to learn, perhaps because students want to. But until now, science didn't have an explanation as to why that's the case. A study published in the journal Neuron recently revealed that curiosity improves a person's recall of information, impacting learning outcomes. 

Studying memory
Researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to see how curiosity affected learning outcomes in participants. Volunteers (of which there were 19) were given a trivia quiz with questions on a variety of subjects. Rather than answer the questions, participants rated them based on how curious they were about the answer. When volunteers reviewed their quizzes (while hooked up to an MRI machine), researchers noted that the parts of the brain associated with reward and pleasure lit up. Furthermore, the hippocampus (which is partly related to the creation of memories) was active.

Participants also took memory-retention quizzes immediately after seeing information and one day later. They recalled information they learned while in a state of high curiosity the best. Participants even recalled information unrelated to topics that interested them while their brains were still curious. 

"So curiosity recruits the reward system, and interactions between the reward system and the hippocampus seem to put the brain in a state in which you are more likely to learn and retain information, even if that information is not of particular interest or importance," Dr. Charan Ranganath, the study's principal investigator and a professor at the University of California Davis, said in the study. 

Harnessing curiosity in the classroom
Unfortunately, students don't get to learn about their favorite topics all the time. However, the study introduces a way to help students learn the information that doesn't interest them. By piquing students' curiosity, and then introducing a less-interesting subject, teachers can improve learning outcomes. 

For instance, if students are excited for the school dance, a math teacher can incorporate the event into word problems. He or she might talk about the dance a little to get students' attention, then ask, "If John has $90 that he can spend on the school dance, and his ticket is worth 15 percent of that, how much does his ticket cost?"

This problem gives students something to solve, but uses a topic that may spike curiosity. As the study indicated, the process could improve how well students learn math during that day's class.