Interest Development Theory In Brief
In a course I teach on theories of learning and motivation (and how assessment relates to each), I have my students go over several theories of human motivation – from expectancy value theory to the currently popular self-determination theory. A recent discussion with a colleague who specializes in academic motivation, Dr. Jessica Chittum, who told me about a theory I’d never heard of before: interest development theory. It is a theory that, unlike others, puts the idea that interest is a determining factor of motivation seriously. Interestingly, its proponents also seem to suggest that interest is something malleable, rather than fixed – that interest can be created.
After further research, I decided I want to give my class some info on the theory. Only problem is that unlike some other seemingly more publicized/established theories of motivation, there doesn’t seem to exist a good accessible summary. So, I wrote one. I am no expert on theories of motivation, but hopefully, this will help people who are searching for some information on the interest development theory of motivation.
There are many theories about what motivates people and what motivation consists of. But few of those theories put the concept of interest at their center. That seems odd, because when we think about what motivates us, what it takes to motivate us will look different depending on our interest level in that thing. Motivating you to pay attention to your favorite hobby probably involves different techniques than motivating you to pay attention to a fantastically boring lecture. Why? Well, because when we have interest, it somehow makes doing a thing easier and more rewarding.
What is interest? The common dictionary definition is that interest is the state of wanting to focus on something, a sort of impulse to attend to something rather than another. And that is sort of how theorists – like psychologist William James – have described it:
Millions of items of the outward order are present to my senses which never properly enter into my experience. Why? Because they have no interest for me. My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind- without selective interest, experience is an utter chaos (Principles of Psychology).
There are two different conceptions of interest. Individual interest is a person’s enduring preference for certain topics, subject areas, or activities. Situational interest is a less enduring interest that is brought about by situational stimuli.
Researchers suggest there are also two distinct (but inter-related) components to interest. First, there is a feeling-related component, where one is drawn to x because it produces certain feelings (maybe excitement or ease). Second, there is a value-related component, where someone is drawn to something because the value they place on that thing. (Often, interest in something (football, fashion) has both components: you like that thing because you value it highly and because engaging in it produces good feelings. But one may be interested in certain things because you value them highly, even if they don’t produce good feelings (dieting) or they produce good feelings even though you don’t value them highly (a frivolous game on your cell phone).
Lastly, interest is unique because of its intrinsic component. Being interested in something means to be interested in it, not something extrinsic to it. If someone likes to read novels because their teacher rewards them for it, or because they can look smart in front of friends who are non-readers, they are not interested in reading, but the things that come along with reading.
Why is interest important? Most obviously, interest positively correlates with motivation. The more interested you are in a thing, the more you are likely to ‘keep with it.’ Interest, though, also affects the quality of attention you give to what you’re doing. Several studies (reviewed in Schiefele 1991) show that when reading and remembering passages from a book, the more interested a person is in the subject, the more she will be able to answer intricate questions about the meaning of the text. (Those who are less interested can answer questions that ask for factual recall, not much more.) Those who are interested in the subject of the reading are also more likely to use deliberate learning strategies to remember and understand the text.
Can Interest Be Created?: The Four-Phase Model of Interest Development
Some researchers believe that interest cannot be created: you are either interested in x or you aren’t. (I could motivate you extrinsically by presenting you with a reason to do what you aren’t interested in, but for the reason to motivate you, you’d have to be interested in it.) This belief seems to be motivated by research showing that interests are often stable over time; if you are (not) interested in something today, it is unlikely that your interest level in the thing will be different next year.
Other researchers have suggested that interest actually can be created where they didn’t exist before. Drs. Suzanne Hidi and K. Anne Renninger (2006) have proposed a four-phase model of interest development:
Phase 1: Triggered Situational Interest: A new subject, problem, activity, etc (we’ll call it ‘weebling’) is presented to a person, and for situational reasons, that thing is seen as interesting. Maybe a teacher introduces a new subject in class and starts out by asking a question that the students find interesting, even though they’d never been interested in the subject before and may not have been interested if the topic had been presented differently.
Phase 2: Maintained Situational Interest: Once situational interest is kindled, a more sustained focus on x is introduced. Maybe the class focuses on weebling over a period of several days, and the more the class focuses on weebling, the more interest in weebling grows. But this interest is still fragile, and if the topic is cut short prematurely, student interest in weebling may extinguish.
Phase 3: Emerging Individual Interest: After some sustained focus, the subject attaches personal value or good feelings to weebling, such that their interest in weebling now becomes more personal than situational. For instance, after the class focuses on weebling for a while, students find that they are interested enough to think about x outside of class or look forward to the possibility of more in-class focus on weebling.
Phase 4: Well-Developed Individual Interest: While emerging individual interest is still a bit fragile, some interests become quite ingrained in a person such that the interest becomes enduring over time. Some students who’ve been exposed to weebling and developed some individual interest in it go on to develop an interest in weebling that endures long after they graduate. Even though the initial situation (in-class focus on weebling) that led to their interest is long gone, they continue to think about or engage in weebling, and over time, they are less and less likely to lose interest.
It is important to note that Drs. Hidi and Renninger suggest that interest can discontinue at any phase. For instance, getting to maintained situational interest (phase 2) doesn’t mean one will pass into emerging personal interest (phase 3). They are only suggesting that interest can be created and that moving “up” the phases is possible.
There are still questions about whether this model demonstrates that interests can be created or only whether interests can be develop once they are found. In other words, did the students above develop a new interest in weebling, or did they find an interest in weebling that was “unlocked” in the classroom? If a student in the class does not develop an interest in weebling (even at phase 1) does that mean that he just isn’t the type who’ll ever be interested in weebling, or that given the right situation (maybe a certain kind of instruction), he could develop a new interest in weebling?
All that aside, an important thing to take away from the four phase model (and interest development theory) is that given the right scaffolding, interests can in some sense be developed (whether they are found or created). Proponents of Interest Development Theory argue that given the right environmental scaffolds, interests can move from being situational land short-term to being personal and long-term.
Hidi, Suzanne, and K. Ann Renninger. “The Four-Phase Model Of Interest Development.” Educational Psychologist 41.2 (2006): 111–127.
Schiefele, Ulrich. “Interest, Learning, And Motivation.” HEDP Educational Psychologist Educ. Psychologist 26.3 (1991): 299–323.