Updated on Dec 23, 2009

Researchers have identified two types of interest. Situational interest is spontaneous, transitory, and environmentally activated, whereas personal interest, also referred to as individual interest, is less spontaneous, of enduring personal value, and activated internally. Situational interest often precedes and facilitates the development of personal interest. Situational interest appears to be especially important in catching students' attention, whereas personal interest may be more important in holding it (Durik & Harackewicz, 2007; Mitchell, 1993). Personal interest appears to be especially important for sustaining engagement and long-term learning (Hidi & Renninger, 2006).

Situational interest increases learning when the task or to-be-learned information is novel or when information is relevant to a task or learning goal. Text variables such as coherence, identification with characters, suspense, and the concreteness and image-ability of salient text segments also increase situational interest. Collectively, these variables can explain over 50 percent of sample variance in students' learning from text (Schraw, 1997).

Personal interest increases learning due to increased engagement, the acquisition of expert knowledge, and making mundane tasks more challenging. Personal interest is also important because it appears to mediate the relationship between short-term situational interest and long-term mastery and learning within a domain (Hidi & Renninger, 2006). In addition, several studies suggest that personal interest increases the amount and quality of information processing. For example, Schiefele (1999) found that readers with personal interest in a topic were more likely to engage in deeper text processing, characterized by the construction of situational models (i.e., a mental representation of the people, setting, and events implied by the text).


Mitchell (1993) suggested that personal interest develops over time because some topic or event catches an individual's interest in a situational manner that is supported by learning events that help the person to hold that interest. Sustained interest increases engagement and motivation to learn, as well as facilitates strategy use and deeper processing. Thus, the development of sustained personal interest is an important component of learning.

Several researchers have investigated the development of interest in more detail. Ainley, Hidi, and Berndorff (2002) reported that situational factors lead to the development of sustained personal interest and that personal interest was related to positive affect, persistence, and learning. Durik and Harackiewicz (2007) described similar findings with one important exception. Experimental manipulations designed to catch learners' attention were effective if the learner has initial interest but undermined learning if the learner had little initial interest. Chen and Darst (2002) reported that background level of expertise had a mediating effect on situational and personal interest. These results suggested that both situational and personal interest are important but that manipulations designed to increase situational interest may not lead to sustained personal interest or learning. These findings also mirrored research on seductive details (i.e., text segments that are interesting but unimportant to a text's main themes), which found that seductive information may reduce learning (Harp & Mayer, 1998; Lehman, Schraw, McCrudden, & Hartley, 2007).


Mitchell (1993) originally proposed a simple three-stage model in which situational interest leads to personal interest, which leads to higher learning. Hidi and Renninger (2006) proposed a more sophisticated model in which interest develops through four continuous stages, including triggered situational interest, maintained situational interest, emerging personal interest, and well-developed individual interest. Triggered situational interest refers to a change in interest that is related directly to a temporary change in the stimuli, environment, or to-be-learned information. These changes may be evoked by a wide variety of factors, including highly relevant information, surprising or unexpected information, information that is incongruous with the task, a change in environment, or the enthusiasm of a teacher or mentor. Maintained situational interest refers to a state of focused attention and greater personal investment with the to-be-learned information. These changes usually are supported externally by a stimulating text, task, or teacher. In addition, maintained interest is sustained through meaningful tasks and personal involvement. Emerging individual interest refers to a state in which interest does not need to be sustained externally and one in which the interest becomes an enduring disposition. These changes are supported by increased curiosity, greater domain knowledge, and a perceived sense of pleasure and usefulness in the activity. Well-developed individual interest refers to an enduring change in disposition for the information or activity. These changes are characterized by positive affect, greater intrinsic motivation, extensive knowledge about the domain, a high level of procedural expertise, and an ability to monitor and self-regulate one's future development in the domain.

The four-phase model of interest development provides a concise explanation of how interest develops, is sustained, and how it impacts engagement and learning. A number of studies provide empirical support for the model (Ainley et al., 2002; Durik & Harackiewicz, 2007). Nevertheless, a number of important issues remain as of 2008 for future research. One is whether the model is equally applicable across the lifespan. It may be the case that interest develops in a somewhat different way, or on a different developmental trajectory, for children compared to older students or adults. A second issue is whether interest is a necessary precursor of expertise or independent of expertise. For example, someone may develop considerable knowledge of investment strategies out of financial necessity rather than personal interest. A third is whether interest development is subject to reversals and, if so, how interest erodes and is replaced by new interests. A fourth issue pertains to how environmental factors affect the transition of early interest to sustained personal affect. As some research indicates, well meaning attempts to increase interest may actually have a negative effect on affect and learning (Lehman et al., 2007; Schraw & Lehman, 2001).


Definitive evidence indicates that situational and personal interests are related to learning in three important ways. One way is that interest increases motivation, engagement, and persistence. Situational interest has a positive effect on extrinsic motivation, whereas personal interest has a positive long-term effect on intrinsic motivation. Presumably, external factors such as teachers and interesting textbooks provide external motivation to learn more about a domain. Once situational interest develops into well-developed individual interest, external factors likely play a smaller role in motivation, whereas intrinsic motivation and enjoyment play larger roles.

Extrinsic and intrinsic motivation are essential precursors to engagement. Students who are interested in a topic or activity are more likely to engage and persist, which in turn leads to the acquisition of new skills and knowledge. Motivation helps individuals to develop the confidence to undertake a new learning activity or to venture into an unfamiliar intellectual domain such as mathematics and science. For example, Renninger (2000) reported a compensatory effect in which high interest compensated for lower achievement and lower ability. Engagement enables learners to develop conceptual knowledge and essential procedural skills within a domain. In turn, motivation and engagement facilitate persistence within a domain that is necessary to develop true expertise. Persistence produces greater competence, which increases confidence and self-efficacy, and makes it easier and more enjoyable to learn.

A second way that interest is related to learning is through strategy use (Alexander & Jetton, 1996; Schraw & Lehman, 2001). Students who are interested in a topic report using more strategies are more likely to monitor their performance and shift strategies when necessary and are better able to self-regulate their learning. Increased strategy use, metacognitive monitoring, and self-regulation improve the efficiency of skill and knowledge acquisition as well as the amount of information learned.

A third way that interest affects learning is through deeper information processing. Schiefele (1999) found that high-interest learners were more likely to construct deeper mental representations of a text. This correlation may be due in part to the fact that high-interest learners are more likely to possess topic-specific knowledge and learning strategies. Yet regardless of knowledge and strategies, students with high levels of interest are more likely to engage in an activity, persist, report positive affect, and focus more of their effort on constructing a deeper understanding of the skill or domain that they are studying.


Research suggests that interest is an important precursor to learning and is changeable. A number of suggestions are included below that are based on previous articles (Schraw, Flowerday & Lehman, 2001; Hidi & Renninger, 2006). Each of these strategies may have a unique facilitative effect; thus, it is reasonable to use as many strategies as are feasible in the classroom.

  1. Model interest and engagement in the classroom. Some teachers are enthusiastic about what they teach and demonstrate that enthusiasm on a day-to-day basis. Teacher enthusiasm develops initial interest due to events, topics, and observation. One way to promote and sustain interest is for teachers, tutors, or peers to model it.
  2. Offer meaningful choices to students. Choice is hypothesized to promote a greater sense of self-determination because it satisfies students' need for autonomy. Empirical studies of choice support this view. Teachers also suggest that choice increases students' interest in a text.

Teachers interviewed by Flowerday and Schraw (2000) recommended offering a wide variety of choices to all students on a regular basis. In terms of when to use choice, teachers suggested offering meaningful choices to students of all ages, especially those who demonstrate low interest otherwise. Regarding where to offer choice, teachers do so in a variety of settings, including tasks such as homework and student assessment, as well as academic and social activities. Regarding how to use choice, teachers offered the following suggestions: offer simple choices at first, help students practice making good choices, provide feedback about the choices students make, use team choices for younger or less-experienced students, and provide information that clarifies the choice. For example, one teacher stated that she lets her students choose from a menu of five or six stories that she knows are interesting and suitable to her students.

Use engaging real-life problems. Students are engaged by interesting topics, but also by challenging and interesting activities. Several studies suggest that real-life problems are of interest to students and that even boring activities can be made more interesting if students challenge themselves. Hidi and Renninger (2006) recommended activities that require multiple students, including cooperative learning groups, team projects, one-on-one tutors, and interactive problem solving with or without teachers.

Use well organized texts and learning materials. Well organized texts are those that are coherent and informationally complete. These two variables are strongly related to interest and learning in text (Schraw, 1997). As texts become less user friendly or as students become less knowledgeable about text content, it is recommended that teachers make a greater effort to provide useful background knowledge about the text, given that knowledge and coherence appear to make separate contributions.

Select texts and learning materials that are vivid. Texts are vivid because they contain rich imagery, suspense, provocative information that surprises the reader, and engaging themes. Research suggests that text vividness has a positive impact on interest and learning provided the vivid information is germane to the learning task. Texts that include irrelevant or highly seductive information may actually interfere with learning by diverting readers' attention from important text segments (Harp & Mayer, 1998; Lehman et al., 2007).

Use texts that students know about. Prior knowledge is related positively to interest and deeper learning. Teachers should follow one of two strategies to promote interest. One is to use texts whose content is familiar, though not highly familiar, to the majority of students. Familiarity with text helps students generate thematic inferences within the text as well as between the text and prior knowledge. A second strategy is to provide pre-reading background information to help students better comprehend what they are asked to learn. This can be done directly by the teacher or via small group discussions among students.

Encourage students to be active learners. Students who actively make meaning learn more information at a deeper level. A number of researchers have suggested that interest increases active learning as well as the reverse (Mitchell, 1993; Hidi & Renninger, 2006). One way that students become more active is by using specific learning strategies such as predicting and summarizing. Another way is by using general study strategies in which students identify what they already know, want to know, and have learned.

Provide relevance cues for students. Relevance refers to whether information is salient to a task (McCrudden & Schraw, 2007). Almost any kind of information can become relevant to a learning situation. Understanding what is relevant to the learning task beforehand increases interest and learning. Teachers should highlight relevant themes and information for students before they begin to read or study. This is especially important for low-interest students. Several strategies may be used for highlighting the relevance of information: (a) encouraging students to set personal reading goals before reading, (b) helping students understand what is most important or salient to the reading task, c) asking students to focus on cause and effect relationships, and (d) asking students to explain the text to other students.

Highlighting the relevance of information or goals for learning may increase the perceived value of information. Previous research suggests that individuals are more motivated to process information they value. Although valuing may be due in part to personal interest, it also appears to be affected by the culture of the school as well as teacher values. Teachers who highlight the relevance and value of information and skills for students may also increase interest.

Do not use seductive information gratuitously. Research suggests that information that is irrelevant, out of place, or increases the relative cognitive load of information processing may actually interfere with learning. For example, Harp and Mayer (1998) found that highly interesting segments that were added to a text passage, but were not important or relevant, decreased learning of main idea, even though memory for the seductive information was quite high. One recommended rule is to incorporate a limited amount of highly interesting information, but make sure it is relevant to the learning task and does not seem incongruous with other to-be-learned information (Lehman et al., 2007).


Ainley, M., Hidi, S., & Berndorff, D. (2002). Interest, learning, and the psychological processes that mediate their relationship. Journal of Educational Psychology, 94, 545–561.

Alexander, P. A., & Jetton, T. L. (1996). The role of importance and interest in the processing of text. Educational Psychology Review, 8, 89–121.

Chen, E., & Darst, P. W. (2002). Individual and situational interest: The role of gender and skill. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 27, 250–269.

Durik, A. M., & Harackiewicz, J. (2007). Different strokes for different folks: How individual interest moderates the effects of situational factors on task interest. Journal of Educational Psychology, 99, 597–610.

Flowerday, T., & Schraw, G. (2000). Teacher beliefs about instructional choice. Journal of Educational Psychology, 92, 634–645.

Harp, S., F. & Mayer, R. E. (1998). How seductive details do their damage: A theory of cognitive interest in science learning. Journal of Educational Psychology, 90, 414–434.

Hidi, S., & Renninger, K. A. (2006). The four-phase model of interest development. Educational Psychologist, 41, 111–127.

Lehman, S., Schraw, G., McCrudden, M., & Hartley, K. (2007). The effects of seductive details on reading processes. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 32, 569–587.

McCrudden, M. T., & Schraw, G. (2007). Relevance and goal-focusing in text processing. Educational Psychology Review, 19, 113–139.

Mitchell, M. (1993). Situational Interest: Its multifaceted structure in the secondary school mathematics classroom. Journal of Educational Psychology, 85, 424–436.

Renninger, K. A. (2000). Individual interest and its implications for understanding intrinsic motivation. In C. Sansone & J. M. Harackiewicz (Eds.), Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation: The search for optimal motivation and performance (pp. 375–407). New York: Academic Press.

Schiefele, U. (1999). Interest and learning from text. Scientific Studies of Reading, 3, 257–280.

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation Schraw, G. (1997). Situational interest in literary text. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 22, 436–456.

Schraw, G., Flowerday, T., & Lehman, S. (2001). Promoting situational interest in the classroom. Educational Psychology Review, 13, 211–224.

Schraw, G., & Lehman, S. (2001). Situational interest: A review of the literature and directions for future research. Educational Psychology Review, 13, 23–52.

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