Post by Ken Kolb ‘Using SI to measure “intellectual curiosity”’

Using SI to measure “intellectual curiosity”

Ken Kolb, Furman University

When was the last time you looked at your school’s promotional materials?  You know, the endless stream of pamphlets, calendars, and application packets?  Odds are, they mention the words “intellectual curiosity.”  Why?  Well, because that is what we – as college professors – supposedly teach our students.  Wait, “teach” is too simple a word for the public relations folks.  Let’s try again.  Okay, in our classrooms, we “instill,” or “infuse” our students with a deep seated “intellectual curiosity” that drives them to become “lifelong learners” with an insatiable desire for more knowledge.  Sound better? Well, if that is what your school is selling to your students (and their parents), how will you know if you are delivering on your promise?  What is “intellectual curiosity” after all?  If a student has it, how will you know?  If a particular feature of our curriculum is designed to produce more of “it,” what evidence will indicate that you have achieved your goal?

The concept of “curiosity” has been studied for ages.  Dewey wrote about it in his 1910 book, How We Think.  Nowadays, the concept is entrenched within the domain of psychologists.  They have developed countless quantitative survey instruments to determine whether—and to what degree—people are curious.  However, there is one shortcoming in their logic (from a symbolic interactionist perspective); almost all of these studies treat curiosity as a state or trait that presumably leads to future action—without ever actually measuring said action.  Our paper, “Intellectual Curiosity in Action: A Framework to Assess First-Year Seminars in a Liberal Arts Setting,” takes the opposite approach.  First, we measure the behaviors students are engaging in, and then we dig deep into the school’s promotional materials to infer the meaning of those behaviors from the perspective of the designers of our curriculum.

Take reading, for example.  Our university (and presumably yours) sees reading as a good thing.  We want students to complete their reading assignments.  However, after analyzing our school’s promotional materials, we found that our institution wants more than that.  We advertise to prospective students and their parents that our curriculum (specifically our first-year seminars) will lead students to become intrinsically motivated readers; that taking our classes will makes students want to read more, on their own, for their own benefit.  You know, get them to enjoy reading for reading’s sake.  Thus, what kinds of reading do you think would best indicate a students’ “intellectual curiosity”?  Well, we argue that intellectually curious students seek out extra reading, on their own, above and beyond the required amount.

In the end, our method to measure intellectual curiosity was pretty simple.  We interviewed students at the beginning and end of their first-year seminar, and asked them to describe recent times that their seminar had led them to engage in intrinsically motivated extra-curricular activities.  We then ranked these behaviors according to what they meant to the designers of the first-year seminar program (as indicated by the materials administrators used to promote the seminar as means to “cultivate” intellectual curiosity within our students).  By comparing students pre and post test responses in their interviews, we developed a means to measure a tricky (but important) concept that most people take for granted.

Love it or hate it, assessment is here to stay.  We can either defer to the psychologists, or offer our own approach.  Symbolic interactionists are good at analyzing subtle, nuanced, and complex phenomena.  Measuring the outcomes of classroom experiences is something we can—and should—do.


For more, see:

Kolb, Kenneth H., Kyle C. Longest, and Jenna C. Barnett. “Intellectual Curiosity in Action: A Framework to Assess First-Year Seminars in Liberal Arts Settings.” The Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 25(2): 131-156  (log-in required)

If you have difficulties accessing the article please contact the author at


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The Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction (SSSI) is an international professional organization of scholars interested in the study of a wide range of social issues with an emphasis on identity, everyday practice, and language.
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1 Response to Post by Ken Kolb ‘Using SI to measure “intellectual curiosity”’

  1. Kenkolb says:

    If you can’t get the article, email me and I’ll send you a PDF

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