The powerful facilitative effect of interest on academic performance in general has been well established. For the purpose of this entry, the current conceptualization of interest is overviewed, followed by a review of interest research on reading.
The Conceptualization of Interest
Among the many conceptualizations of interest the most common are to consider interest as a state and/or as a disposition. It has also been demonstrated that interest has both cognitive and affective (emotional) components. Researchers also distinguish between individual and situational interest, with the former targeting personal interest and the latter focusing on creating appropriate environmental settings.
Individual interest has been viewed as a relatively long-lasting predisposition to reengage with particular objects and events. Increased knowledge, value, and positive affect have been connected with individual interest. Students bring to their academic experience a network of individual interests, some similar to and some incompatible with classroom learning. Social categories such as gender and race also function as individual interest factors that may affect classroom engagement.
Situational interest refers to a psychological state elicited by environmental stimuli. The state is characterized by focused attention and an immediate affective reaction. The affective component is generally positive, although it may also include some negative emotions. Once triggered, the reaction may or may not be maintained. Situational sources of interest in learning contexts may be particularly relevant for educators working with students who do not have preformed individual interests in their school activities.
Although differences exist between situational and individual interest, they are not dichotomous phenomena. First, both situational and individual interest include an affective component and culminate in the psychological state of interest. Such a state is characterized by focused attention, increased cognitive functioning, and increased and persistent activity. Second, investigators concede that both types of interest are content specific and emerge from the interaction of the person and aspects in the environment. Third, numerous researchers recognize that situational and individual interests may interact. In the absence of the other, the role of individual or situational interest may be particularly important. For example, individual interest in a subject may help individuals deal with relevant but boring texts, while situational interest generated by texts may sustain motivation even when individuals have no particular interest in the topic. In addition, situational interest may develop over time into individual interest.
It has been found that topic interest has both situational and individual components. Topic interest may have an especially significant role in reading and writing in schools because students usually have to deal with text on the basis of topics provided by teachers.
Interest and Reading Research
The most important questions raised in the literature on interest and reading concerned the influence of interest on readers' text processing and learning, the factors that contribute to readers' interest, and the specific processes through which interest influences learning. These issues are considered next.
The influence of interest on readers' text processing and learning. Up to the early 1980s, the prevalent view in educational research was that proficient readers process and recall text according to its hierarchical structure. Thus it was believed that readers could recall best the more important ideas at the higher levels of text structures. Since the early 1980s, however, research has shown that readers' well-formed individual interests and their situational interests (evoked by topics and text segments) contributed to their reading comprehension and learning. Several studies have demonstrated that personally interesting text segments and passages written on high-interest topics facilitate children's as well as college students' comprehension, inferencing, and retention.
Researchers have also demonstrated that interest affects the type of learning that occurs. Specifically, beyond increasing the amount of recall, interest seems to have a substantial effect on the quality of learning. Interest leads to more elaborate and deeper processing of texts. In 2000 Mark McDaniel, Paula Waddill, Kraig Finstad, and Tammy Bourg found that readers engaged with uninteresting narratives focused on individual text elements, such as extracting proposition-specific content, whereas readers of interesting texts tended to engage in organizational processing of information. Furthermore, their research suggests that text differing in interest may affect the degree to which processing strategies benefit memory performance.
Factors contributing to readers' interest. Another important educational issue is to increase the amount of interesting reading that students engage in. The bulk of the research in this area examined text characteristics that contribute to making reading materials more interesting. In his seminal 1979 paper, Roger Schank indicated that certain concepts (e.g., death, violence, and sex) can be considered "absolute interests" that almost universally elicit individuals' interest. In 1980 Walter Kintsch, referring to these interests as "emotional interests," distinguished them from cognitive interests, which result from events that are involved in complex cognitive structures or contain surprise. Subsequent research has suggested that a variety of text characteristics contribute in a positive way to the interestingness and memorability of written materials. Features that were found to be sources of situational interest include novelty, surprising information, intensity, visual imagery, ease of comprehension, text cohesion, and prior knowledge.
Text-based interest can also be promoted by altering certain aspects of the learning environment such as modifying task presentations, curriculum materials, and individuals' self-regulation. For example, in 1994 Gregg Schraw and R. S. Dennison were able to change the interestingness and recall of text materials by assigning for reading various perspectives on the same topic. In addition, research has indicated that presenting educational materials in more meaningful, challenging, and/or personally relevant contexts can stimulate interest. Modifying the presence of others in the learning environment can also elicit interest. For example, German researchers Lore Hoffman and P. Haussler demonstrated that mono-educational classes in physics can contribute to girls' increased interest in the subject area. Finally, Carol Sansone and colleagues in a series of studies showed that individuals can self-regulate in order to make tasks more interesting and subsequently to develop individual interest in activities initially considered uninteresting. Although these studies did not deal specifically with interest in reading, they indicated that interest in reading could also be increased by similar methods.
Specific processes through which interest influences learning. Gregg Schraw and colleagues suggested in 1995 that interest should be thought of as a complex cognitive phenomenon affected by multiple text and reader characteristic. A critical question is how the elicitation of interest leads to improved recall. One possibility is that interest activates text-processing strategies that result in readers being engaged in deeper-level processing. Suzanne Wade and colleagues reported in 1999 that the connections readers made between information and their prior knowledge or previous experience increased their interest.
Mark Sadoski and colleagues suggested in 1993 that interacting but separate cognitive systems (verbal and nonverbal) can explain the relationships among interest, comprehension, and recall. When verbal materials are encoded through both of these systems, comprehension and memory increase. The dual coding suggested by Sadoski and colleagues seems to account for the effects of some of the sources of interest that have been found to be associated with increased comprehension and memory, such as the processing of concrete, high-imagery materials. Nevertheless, some highly concrete and easily imaginable information is more interesting than other similar information. In addition, the informational significance of intensity, novelty, surprise, high personal relevance, and character identification reported in the literature to elicit interest do not seem to promote dual encoding prompted by concrete language and mental imagery. Another factor that has been associated with interest, reading, and increased learning is attention. Suzanne Hidi argued that interest is associated with automatic attention that facilitates learning. More specifically, she argued that such attention frees cognitive resources and leads to more efficient processing and better recall of information. In 2000 McDaniel, Waddill, Finstad, and Bourg reported empirical data supporting this position. Finally, as interest undoubtedly has a strong emotional component, this aspect may play a critical role in how interest influences learning. The effect of emotions on interest, however, is yet to be fully investigated in educational research.
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