Another aspect of engagement seems to be interest and attention. If we focus on this aspect of engagement the definition is closer to ‘participating in activities that capture interest and attention in a subject matter’. In this view interest and attention are, in and of themselves, effective processes that promote understanding and learning, or they lead to effective processes that promote understanding and learning. So, do interest and attention lead to better learning?
First, I want to be clear that focused attention is very beneficial for learning. Promoting focused attention (1) and avoiding, or mitigating, divided attention (2), helps students process relevant information and ignore irrelevant information (3). However, when talking about ways to engage students people often talk about grabbing or capturing attention, without necessarily worrying about whether students are multitasking in the process.
Second, interest is a term that is hard to define. In one context, interest might be a short hand for paying attention. In another, interest might signal some sort of background or history with a subject. The Four Phase Model of Interest Development by Hidi and Renninger (2006) is a useful framework for disentangling the various forms of interest (4). They propose that there are two main types of interest. Situational interest is interest that happens in the moment. A funny story or a cool demonstration might capture attention and cause someone to be interested in the situation. Individual interest is interest that is the result of repeated engagement with a topic, and is indicative of a more substantive background knowledge and greater ability to learn more about a topic. I clearly have an interest in how learning and memory work, but this interest is also reflective of years of research and study on the topic that makes it easier for me to read the latest research, understand it, and learn more about the topic. On the other hand, I recently had a conversation with a student about a Japanese band called Babymetal, who started the kawaii metal sub-genre, that was very interesting. It was, relative to my experience, a fairly unique and therefore situationally interesting conversation, but I have a very limited range of experience and background knowledge with this topic and remember very little about the nuances of metal music composition from the conversation.