Creating the Spark: Igniting Curiosity in the Classroom and Beyond

Wes Johnson, Student Pharmacist

The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.” – Plutarch

As my time in the classroom ended, this quote made me reflect on my years in pharmacy school. Did I have a genuine curiosity and desire to learn, or had I defaulted to learning just enough for the next test? This idea of curiosity fascinated me.

The pharmacy management course my last semester required our class to read and analyze a book from a list of non-pharmacy related titles. Our professor stated his intent was to allow us to delve into areas of interest outside of pharmacy. I chose “Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell because I enjoyed his podcasts that always spurred self-reflection. I found it fascinating to learn how unconscious thoughts and biases affect our actions, for better or worse. I was truly engaged in the assignment. I was not alone in enjoying my book, as other classmates expressed the same sentiment.

Why was I eager to read that book, but was not enthralled with learning certain medication guidelines pertinent to pharmacists? Why did some classroom environments spark my curiosity, but others did not? I wondered if pharmacy courses and curricula could be structured to equip students with the necessary knowledge and skills while also inspiring curiosity and passion for lifelong learning.

A Model for Cultivating Curiosity

Most instructors will agree, promoting curiosity in classrooms is difficult, but it can yield great results. Studies show that curiosity enhances learning, and I have found this to be accurate in my case.1 I enjoyed the small group discussion concerning my book, but my professor also seemed to appreciate the interesting dialogue generated and our shared interest fed off of each other. I appreciated hearing how my professor and classmates viewed this book. I now realize how much situations such as this mean for students. Passion or genuine interest from professors during pharmacy school was invaluable. Their enthusiasm ignited a sense of curiosity within me because I needed to know why certain topics excited them, and I wanted to see if that excitement took hold in me.

Allow choices

Kedge and Appleby note that for clinical educators to promote curiosity, a vital step is allowing students to have sufficient input into decision-making.2 In my situation, I was allowed to choose the book I wanted to read. This idea of learner autonomy could be implemented in most classes as students could be permitted to select topics of personal interest, then write a report or give a topic discussion. Through this, students take ownership and their desire to learn about a topic of personal interest gives them the opportunity to become well-versed in the topic. My infectious disease elective is a great example. I was able to select my topic to present to the class and because of that I genuinely enjoyed the project.

Allow failure

One study analyzed inhibitors of curiosity in workplaces, and found that fear was a major category. Specifically, this included areas of failure, embarrassment and lack of control.3 However, “safe” failure can be productive. This means that student missteps are handled respectfully and students are given ample opportunity to inquire about their mistakes. Creating an environment of trust allows students to correct misunderstandings and continue with confidence. During pharmacy school, I felt most connected with professors who allowed me to ask questions and give opinions. I felt a greater sense of control and engaged more within these classrooms. However, professors that gave no opportunity for questions generated a feeling of little control and I had minimal passion for learning.

Allow reflection

Through reflection, students learn to have humble demeanors because they must address their shortcomings and realize there are always areas for growth. Reflection can stimulate students to think deeply and become more curious about topics. One study noted how clinical instructors who think aloud and reflect on their performance facilitate the mastery of reflection.4 Reflection should not end with students. As a student, I appreciate when instructors acknowledge shortcomings and then take steps to reflect and ameliorate problems. This example may motivate students to follow their lead, and establish an environment of self-reflection and curiosity on how to improve.

In an intensive curriculum that requires specialized knowledge, such as pharmacy , allowing choices, failure, and reflection could be a step in the right direction to sparking students’ curiosity. A curious mindset is not bound to classrooms, it will lead to improvement and learning throughout one’s career. A small project was all I needed to see my learning differently, but what will it take for other students? How are you attempting to collaborate with students and inspire a curiosity that goes beyond the classroom? A simple dialogue could be what is needed to invoke curiosity within your classroom.

Acknowledgements: Dr. Jeff Cain of the University of Kentucky College of Pharmacy


  1. Kang MJ, Hsu M, Krajbich IM, et al. The wick in the candle of learning: Epistemic curiosity activates reward circuitry and enhances memory. Psychol Sci 2009;20(8):963-973.
  2. Kedge S and Appleby B. Promoting a culture of curiosity within nursing practice. Br J Nurs 2009;18(10):635-637.
  3. Hamilton D. Developing and testing inhibitors of curiosity in the workplace with the Curiosity Code Index (CCI). Heliyon 2019;5(1):e01185.
  4. Dyche, L, and Epstein RM. Curiosity and medical education. Med Educ. 2011;45(7):663-668.

Wes Johnson is a fourth-year student pharmacist at the University of Kentucky. Educational scholarship interests include infectious disease and academia. In his free time, Wes enjoys going to the gym and having game nights with his wife and friends.

Pulses is a scholarly blog supported by Currents in Pharmacy Teaching & Learning

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