Student Engagement

Activities to Spark Students’ Curiosity in the Classroom

Inquisitive hooks, or activities designed to spark students’ curiosity, make the start of a new lesson fun, boosting their motivation to learn.

May 17, 2023
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Inquisitive hooks, or intellectual puzzles that capture students’ attention at the start of a lesson, are a powerful way to foster curiosity and intrinsic motivation that sustain student engagement and promote lifelong learning. 

For example, in one of my English as a Second Language classes, I ask: “What do a checkered shirt, pink deodorant container, pile of dirt, and photo of Seattle have in common?” I show students a picture representing these seemingly random items and ask students to deduce what we’re studying that day, using the image as a clue (answer: the lyrics of the song “Smells Like Teen Spirit”). 

This inquisitive hook not only helps me get students interested in the lesson right away but also boosts motivation in general, and there are many ways to implement this element of curiosity across the curriculum. Here are some ideas. 

Guess the connection 

When thinking about your lesson topic, consider: What images or objects represent this topic? If you were an illustrator, what would you draw on this topic? 

Write down a list of associations that your lesson topic brings to mind. Try to name material objects; to keep your thoughts flowing, set a timer for two minutes as you brainstorm. Once you’re done, choose those items from your list that most stand out to you, and find images online (or ask an AI program to produce them). If feasible, you might also find real-life objects to bring into class. 

In class, show a picture—as I did in the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” example above—or a slide with different things on it. Ask your students to first name the objects they see and to then try to establish a unifying topic. My colleague, for example, once brought stones, souvenirs, and toys to class; the objects all came from a certain region and became a great inquisitive hook to start off her geography lesson. 

Decipher the topic

Another engaging strategy is to take the topic of your lesson and make it into a word puzzle that students have to solve. You might try turning this into a team exercise, and there are a variety of online generators that can help you. For example, this Wordle generator gives you an opportunity to set the hidden word. Or you can introduce the concept of a rebus to your class by using an online tool that will help you with generating such puzzles. 

Your rebus puzzles can also come as videos; I once introduced the topic of future goals by showing a one-minute video about time-traveling and a 30-second video of a soccer player scoring a goal. Deciphering the topic may be a bit time-consuming, but it gets the students working together straightaway. For low- or no-tech options, a game of hangman is also a good standby for generating intrigue and excitement.

Guess what this is 

If you’d like to use more than one word in your inquisitive hook, “Guess What This Is” allows you to introduce a concept, a historical event, or a fact.

Think about something you are going to teach in terms of a news headline: What would it sound like if it were printed in the newspaper? Next, take this headline and rewrite it as an emoji sequence (think of the Late Late Show with James Corden bit called “Emoji News”). Share this emoji sequence with your students, and ask them to guess what they see. 

A similar approach is to prepare a sound mystery for your students. Find an audio clip of something related to the topic of your lesson: a song, a nature sound found on YouTube or recorded with your smartphone, an archived recording, etc. I once began a lesson about space exploration with a recording of the conversation between Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and William Anders during the shooting of the Earthrise photograph and asked the students to guess what they were hearing (audio available here). 

Think and find the answer 

Perhaps the most challenging (but fun!) inquisitive hook to produce is to introduce your topic by presenting students with an actual riddle. Your hook should not be a trivia question that relies on factual knowledge, but rather a question that provides students with an opportunity to figure out the answer by simply giving it a bit of thought. 

Your riddle can be based on anything that catches your eye and is related to the lesson topic. It should not be very hard, just challenging enough to pique interest. I find it more effective to guide students toward the correct answer if they’re feeling stuck, since a sense of achievement is important, and the objective here is engagement. 

For example, I might start a lesson about Easter traditions with the 19th-century artwork Still Life With Oranges (a painting featuring a peeled orange). The students’ task is to decide who the painter was: Rembrandt, Frans Hals, or Raphaelle Peale? They may figure out it’s Peale and deduce that this is an example of an “Easter egg”—or a hidden message embedded in a piece of art—thereby connecting back to our lesson topic.

Sustaining Student Engagement 

By using different media and sources from various subjects to introduce a lesson topic, we can simultaneously promote integrated studies, cooperative learning, and problem-solving as students work in pairs or small groups to figure out the answer through deductive reasoning, idea building, and collaboration. 

As they have in my class, inquisitive hooks may help to keep your students interested and engaged, especially toward the end of the school year, bringing a fresh sense of curiosity into the classroom.

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  • Student Engagement
  • Curriculum Planning
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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