Educational Psychologist K. Ann Renninger Describes the Power of Interest in New Book

Ann Renninger

Do you ever wonder why you are interested in one subject but not in another? Is it your sense that people are just born interested in one thing or another?

Although many would answer yes to this last question, that’s a misconception, says K. Ann Renninger, Eugene M. Lang Research Professor and Chair of the Department of Educational Studies, and her colleague, Suzanne E. Hidi of the University of Toronto.

In their recently released book, The Power of Interest for Motivation and Engagement, they draw on research demonstrating that people’s interest in something depends on the quality of their experiences with it—and, that people at all ages can be supported to develop new interests, and it is a benefit to them to do so.

As Renninger explains, interest has repeatedly been found to positively influence attention, goal setting, and learning strategies.

“The development of interest is related to the reward circuitry of the brain; once interest is supported to develop, the search behaviors that are associated with gathering and understanding new information become rewarding. This is powerful,” she says. “Given that interest can be supported to develop, if educators made developing an interest a goal for their teaching, all students would have the opportunity to seriously engage many disciplines that presently, for one reason or another, feel elusive to them."

She adds that this information has only become clear because of developments in neuroscience; many of the misunderstandings about interest and motivation stem from lack of information. “The implications are now straightforward. Effective pedagogy needs to account for a person's level of interest—a person with more interest and a person with less interest need different types of support. When pedagogy is matched to interest, a person is more able to persist and do the hard work that is necessary to continue to develop understanding.”

Read an interview with Renninger and Hidi about the power of interest

Drawing on research in cognitive, developmental, educational, and social psychology as well the learning sciences and neuroscience, the two authors demonstrate that there is power in leveraging interest for motivation and engagement. Written in two parts to make the text assessable to readers who do not have a background in the research literature, it describes the effect of interest on both motivation and meaningful engagement. In many instances, the case material used comes from studies that Renninger has conducted and published with her students at the College.

According to Renninger, researchers in educational psychology don’t often write books. The pair were approached by Routledge Publishing to write this volume, and agreed because they felt that the implications of research developments in studies of interest have broad implications for anyone – such as parents, educators, and employers – who work with others and not just those who study motivation.

Beyond The Power of Interest for Motivation and Engagement – which is now into its second printing – Renninger and Hidi have co-authored some of the most important articles on interest and its role in learning and development. Their 2006 description of the “Four-Phase Model of Interest Development” has been cited over 1,400 times. Last year, along with Martina Nieswandt, associate professor of teacher education and curriculum studies at the University of Massachusetts, edited Interest in Mathematics and Science Learning, the collected chapters from a prestigious American Educational Research Association conference that was hosted at the College.

Currently, the researchers are working to compile another volume,The Cambridge Handbook on Motivation and Learning, in addition to their individual research programs – that in Renninger’s case involves her work with the Science for Kids program, Associate Professor of Physics Catherine Crouch and Associate Professor of Statistics Lynne Schofield.