New Research Indicates Student Interest Critical to Engagement in Science

M. Yvonne Taylor
Aug. 10, 2016

Photo of Erika Patall
Erika Patall

Educators and parents have understood that student interest is important in engaging high schoolers in science, but exactly how that interest supports their learning has not been clearly measured. New research from a University of Texas at Austin College of Education professor confirms interest not only as a powerful predictor of students’ engagement in the science classroom, but also that student engagement positively affects student-teacher interaction.

Erika A. Patall, assistant professor in the Department of Educational Psychology at the College of Education at The University of Texas, led the research study, funded by the William T. Grant Foundation. The study, published this summer in the journal, Contemporary Educational Psychology, found that interest was an especially powerful predictor of student engagement in science classrooms for Black and Hispanic students. Male science students in particular also reported more positive subsequent responses from their teachers when they were interested. Their teachers gave them more autonomy on days following those when they were most interested.

The study asked 218 high school students in 43 science classes to regularly report their experiences in class over a six-week instructional unit to determine what prompts them to engage in scientific learning.

Says Patall, “Interest was a powerful predictor of students’ effort, participation, attention, and thinking in the classroom, especially for underrepresented minority students who reported thinking more about how to learn in science class on days they experienced interest during that class.”

“On days that followed students experiencing interest during class,” she says, “students reported that their teachers seemed to support their motivation to a greater extent by giving them more choices.”

The upshot, says Patall, is that “teachers who focus on activating student interest in class will help bring about a sustainable cycle of student engagement and learning.”