Research begins with curiosity

Image by Ronald Plett from Pixabay

When I give students a research project, the first thing I ask them to do is propose a set of three topics. For my freshman seminar students, the three topics should be related to a question they still have about college life. For my information literacy students, the focus is on their role as information creators. The reason I ask for three is partly to increase the chances that one of their ideas will be researchable. The second is to try to force some creativity. Coming up with one idea might be easy. Coming up with three? That takes a little more thinking.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t usually work. About 80-90% of the topics students propose are standard academic research topics, ones that they probably think will get them a good grade rather than things they are actually interested in pursuing. Not exactly on the level of topics that get banned because professors are tired of reading about them, but in that same vein.

A course instructor I once worked with had the same issue. She wanted her students to write about topics that interested them or that were fun for them. I tried to model this in the session I taught for her students by using an example research topic related to Doctor Who. But most of them were writing about things like the legalization of marijuana, video game violence, and whether college athletes should get paid. In other words, the kind of essay topics that typically show up on state tests.

Now, it could be that the students had some genuine interest in these topics but it was also obvious that these topics were not fun for them. This despite the fact that their professor and I both encouraged them to pick fun ideas.

Why the disconnect?

I suspect there are a lot of reasons, not the least of which is students’ anxiety about grades, which leads to a narrow focus on topics they know are appropriate for academic research.

But I also wonder if the way these research prompts are phrased might have something to do with it.

My own tendency is to ask students to pursue topics that they are interested in, questions they are interested in. The thought is that if they have an interest in the topic, they’ll be more engaged with the research to come and perhaps take more care with the actual research process.

Ironic though it may seem, I submit that the concept of “interest” is boring. It’s academic. It’s dry. It’s something you have to develop over time.

What if instead we asked students this: What are you curious about?

Unlike interest, curiosity is a natural state. Some people are more naturally curious than others, but everyone is curious about something. And when we’re curious about something, it’s natural to seek information about it. In fact, information-seeking is the main behavioral manifestation of curiosity.

The thing is, following an interest takes dedicated time and concerted effort as well as perhaps some prior knowledge. But a lot of times we follow our curiosity without even thinking about it or worrying about what we don’t know. Because not knowing is the whole point. If we already knew, we wouldn’t be curious. And like Alice chasing the white rabbit, we will follow our curiosity anywhere.

Research that comes from curiosity is the best kind of research. It’s the kind of research that can reveal the magic of the research process, where you start to make creative connections between ideas and discover new ideas to pursue. Because the best thing about curiosity is that it begets more curiosity.

All this said, I’m sure students asked about their curiosity rather than their interest would still struggle in expected ways. I can already picture the worried e-mails I would receive from students seeking guidance on what exactly it is I’m looking for. In other words, what will get them a good grade. But I get those e-mails anyway and I always will as long as students place disproportionate value on their GPAs over actual learning (like I did when I was in their shoes).

Despite the discomfort it would cause, I think it would still be worth trying because, if nothing else, the reality of what research is or could be is much better reflected in questions of curiosity than it is in questions of interest.

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