A study was conducted to apply a recent model of interest (Silvia, 2006) to educational goals and an educational context. The model is based on appraisal theory, and contends that interest is an emotional state dependent on appraisals of the novelty-complexity of an object of study and of one’s coping potential to understand the object. Thus far, this model has been validated when the activity under investigation is viewing polygons and paintings, or reading poems, but the model’s applicability to educational goals hasn’t been investigated previously.
The present research attempted to evaluate the significance of the model regarding the activity of reading expository, academic-oriented text, and to evaluate whether interest could be manipulated through alterations to a treatment text and contribute to increased learning compared to a control group as measured by a text comprehension test. Sixty-five Auburn undergraduate psychology students completed several instruments after random assignment to treatment and control groups, including assessments of interest and three appraisals at two times (pretest and one-third complete), the comprehension test, and measures of three control variables: trait curiosity, modal learning preference, and verbal ability. In addition to investigating effects on interest and learning, a third appraisal—goal relevance (Lazarus, 1991)—was postulated and measured to respond to a call in the literature (Silvia, 2005c) for a third appraisal for interest.
Results showed that manipulations of the treated portion of the treatment text enhanced appraisals of coping potential to a statistically significant degree at a within-person level across time (F = 5.315; p = .025; partial eta sq. = .079). Additionally, the previously untested third appraisal, goal relevance, was shown to predict interest across the sample to a statistically significant degree (Unstandardized β = .567; t = 6.258; p < .001), displaying more predictive power than the combined effects of the original two appraisals. Non-significant findings included the absence of statistically significant differences in coping potential between-persons, in interest at between and within-person levels, and in learning.
Statistical analysis of the present research and two pilot studies yielded the following implications. First, interest in academic material appeared to be manipulable rather than simply present or not present in the student without attributable cause. Second, this manipulated interest appeared to affect learning in a way consistent with the literature such that higher interest leads to higher learning. Third, hints of an extended appraisal model of interest emerged. A new model would include goal relevance alongside novelty-complexity and coping potential as interest’s appraisals, and would identify vividness, coherence, and concreteness as key objective features strongly affecting the original two appraisals.
The implications of this proposed extended model contribute two important features to our understanding of interest. First, additional insight is offered into the causes of text-based interest, including three key text features and a new appraisal. Second, in addition to a functionalist approach to interest, which accounts for novelty-complexity and coping potential appraisals, there appears to be a role for functional autonomy (Allport, 1961) in the generation and function of interest as well, which adds the effects of personality features and other individual differences to the functionalist account. Goal relevance, whose predictive power was the most significant finding of the study, fits well within the theoretical framework of functional autonomy, and would account for a diverse element of interest that enriches what the literature has already acknowledged about its universal element.