Ever wondered why you struggled with memorizing a few verses of poetry, you had to recite at the school event, yet had no problems whatsoever singing five Pink Floyd albums without missing a word? It may be worth thinking about which one you are genuinely interested in if you want to be a better learner.
Genuine interest is a prerequisite for learning. Well, successful learning at least, that is. We all know those situations where we had to learn something we weren’t quite interested in. Many times we did it anyway, for different reasons. Maybe we wanted to get a good grade in school or were afraid of getting a bad grade, maybe someone convinced us that it was good for us, or maybe it was just one of the less interesting parts of our academic journey. In those times, we somehow find the motivation to learn, even though a genuine interest is not there. How is that reflected in our newly found knowledge? It mostly evaporates as soon as we pass the exam, as many know all too well.
Pushing My Way Forward
For me, that experience reared its head during my degree in engineering – I surely did not have an interest in everything I was required to learn. However, that didn’t stop me from finding creative ways of blazing my trail through the system.
I remember a time when I successfully leveraged a mixture of motivation to succeed with an interest in something else to pass an exam, the material of which was completely irrelevant to my studies, only included because the faculty hadn’t yet updated their program.
I used to come to the University library to study because I liked the atmosphere those spacious, book-filled rooms breathed in. I used each learning break to roam between the endless shelves and find interesting books. I would often end up reading the book I had found there instead of my university books. There was a book I still have and use today, twenty years after I graduated; a book called Super Memory.1 I had a genuine interest in the book, and it was not the easiest one to read either. It explained many different techniques to develop one’s memory, to be able to memorize anything that you may be required to commit to memory.
Memorization Techniques Put to the Test
So, I decided to put the book to the test; I would use the techniques to memorize the material I needed to pass the exam. While all my friends were busy learning the course material, my desk was filled with hundreds of pieces of paper I used to adopt the memorization techniques presented in the book. Time was quickly passing by, with only a few weeks left before the exam, and I was yet to touch the course material. Once I’d had enough practice with examples from the memory book, I started working on my course material. In two weeks, I memorized everything there was to know, by heart, using the Method of Loci.2 There was not much insight or deeper understanding of the subject, but the content itself I had mastered. I could reproduce any part of it – forward, backward, or in any random order.
I remember vividly how excited I was taking that exam; it was my own victory against the system which went against logic. The course material could have been better structured to foster understanding, yet it was mostly long lists of items the students were meant to memorize without any deeper understanding. As exciting as it was, I couldn’t help but wonder how much better my time could have been spent, had the course content been more meaningful. The material from that exam stayed in my head for years after I passed it, unlike much of my other previously acquired knowledge for which I hadn’t used any memorization techniques. Once I discovered the right leverage in the form of memorization techniques, learning changed from being hard and boring to easy and exciting, even though back then, I could not verbalize that interest was the key ingredient for successful learning.
Can Genuine Interest be Created?
So if interest does indeed make you a better learner, a question comes to mind: can we create that interest if it’s not there? Can we generate it within ourselves? Or in our kids? The answer seems to be twofold. As John Holt shared in his book Teach Your Own, when he tries to “‘stimulate [the kids’] interest’ in something, the very artificiality of the endeavor…builds a barrier between us”. It happens in schools all the time. Children have a very fine sense of recognizing when something is being forced on them, no matter how much sweet-talking is invested in the process.
Therefore, to instill a genuine interest for learning in our children, we must first accept that we are their role models in many ways. If I am “really sharing something I really love with them because I also really love them, all barriers are down, and we are communicating intimately.”3 Chances are that they will develop more interest in something that way. How much more? That’s up to them completely. Unschooling parents, whose children do not attend school nor follow a prescribed curriculum, see that all the time, and studies are showing that students are much more motivated to learn something that their teachers are genuinely interested in as well.4
Secondly, there has been some research on how to raise children’s (and students’) interest in their learning at schools and universities so that they have a more enjoyable experience and learn better. It seems that the same principles of authenticity and sincerity apply there as well. When teachers give their best in trying to associate new material with something that is already known and relevant to students, students develop more interest in the material and are more eager to learn it.5
Different areas of human endeavor teach us in many ways, just as life does, that the best way forward is often the one that humankind has traditionally been deploying. When scientific methodology confirms these conclusions, we are again reassured that we are doing the right thing. Hence, it is wise to trust our instincts and traditions more and pursue our genuine interests, not forgetting that men have been acquiring knowledge since their beginnings hundreds of thousands of years ago, whereas structured compulsory education, which disregards students’ interests and merely imparts prescribed knowledge, is only a few hundred years old.
- Semoire, Art M., Semorie, R. and Popović, S. I VI Možete Imati Super Pamćenje [Super Memory – You Too Can Have It]. Belgrade, Serbia: Izdanje autora, 1980.
- Art of Memory. “How to Build a Memory Palace.” Last modified April 2, 2023. https://artofmemory.com/blog/how-to-build-a-memory-palace/.
- Holt, John, and Farenga, Pat. Teach Your Own: The John Holt Book Of Homeschooling. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing, 2003.
- Xu, Jianzhong; Coats, Linda T.; Davidson, Mary L. “Promoting Student Interest in Science: The Perspectives of Exemplary African American Teachers.” American Educational Research Journal, vol. 49 iss. 1 (February 2012): 124-154. https://doi.org/10.3102/0002831211426200.
- Renninger, K. Ann; Hidi, Suzanne E. “To Level the Playing Field, Develop Interest.” Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, vol. 7 iss. 1 (March 2020): 10-18. https://doi.org/10.1177/2372732219864705.