How To Make Boring Content Interesting: 3 Tips From Psychologists

Follow this line of reasoning:

Students learn what they think about and students think about what they're interested in.

It makes sense, right?

The question now becomes, what makes something interesting?

Think to yourself: what are you interested in?  I'm interested in (read obsessed) with 19th century Russian Fiction.  I'm sure that didn't pop up on your lists of interests.

It seems that interest is subjective.

I know what your thinking: if all of my students are interested in different things, then getting them to think and learn about the SAME thing will be impossible.

Right and wrong.

You're correct to assume that your students have subjective interests that differ.  You are wrong to think that getting them to think about the same thing will be difficult.


Because cognitive psychologists have determined the common characteristics of something that is interesting.  Said differently, I'm interested in Russian literature for the same reasons your are interested keeping dogs, hiking the Adirondack high peaks, or restoring vintage cars (fill in your hobby).  My interests and your interests share the same intrinsic appeal.  This interest intrinsic appeal can be deconstructed.

This article is about how you can make your content interesting.
There are three characteristics that make something interesting:

1.  Interesting things are emotional

Emotion is an evolutionary adaptation to process the many variables involved with social existence.  Being a social species is not easy and we have emotion to help us navigate through endless social experiences.

Interest is considered an eccentric emotion because interest doesn't directly relate to survival.  As a peripheral emotion, interest's evolutionary purpose is to facilitate learning.  The act of learning is an adaptation linked to survival.

If you make your content emotional, then your students will have greater interest in it.

Further, if you are emotional when teaching, mirror neurons will make your students emotional and interest will increase.

The Pragmatic TV teacher has discussed the use of emotion here.  For longer discussions check out Brain Rules, The Seven Sins of Memory, or Searching For Memory.

2.  Interesting things are new and novel

People pay attention to new things that are "unexpected, complex, hard to process, surprising, mysterious, or obscure."

People are interested in novel things because novelty ignites the risk-reward dopamine system in our brain.  Dopamine is responsible for many things like the feel good feeling following a unique discovery.

Dopamine facilitates memory formation; making a memory is learning.

By highlighting your content's novelty, you are high-jacking their risk-reward dopamine system and facilitating the formation of long term memories.

3.  Interesting things Flow

Psychologist Paul Silvia calls this characteristic comprehensibility.  Upon receiving new stimuli, the brain attempts to create a cause and effect relationship.  If there is no relationship apparent, the brain needs to make an important decision: is the new stimuli understandable (comprehensible)?

Flow refers to the goldilocks challenge zone; not too hard and not too easy.

 If the event is too easy to understand, it is not interesting because it is boring.  If the event is too difficult, it is not interesting because it will lead to frustration.  But if the complexity of the event is just right, not too easy and not too hard, the brain will decide to attend to it and find it interesting.

If you're thinking "this FLOW thing rings a bell" you're right.  The Pragmatic TV Teacher discussed the idea when addressing student thinking, and mastering lesson implementation.  If you have yet to buy Flow, you're truly missing out.

To summarize: to make your content interesting, inject emotion into your lesson, highlight the novel aspects of your content, and focus on lesson objectives that are not too easy and not too boring.

Thanks for reading.

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