Improve Students’ Learning by Surprising Them

After a class ends and you are walking back to your office, what are your most vivid memories of the session? I suspect that you remember most clearly the unexpected and unpredictable aspects, not the mundane ones. You remember Tisha making a connection between something she’d read for class last week and Jenny’s remarks about today’s reading. Your surprise led you to resolve to ask her to speak out in class more often. You were startled to hear Jordann point out that the definition you’d written on the board was missing a key element. Although slightly embarrassed, you were delighted by her understanding of the day’ s lesson. And when the group exercise you’d planned for 10 minutes took more than thirty, you let it continue because the students were producing ideas you’d never thought of before.

Research in cognitive neuroscience and psychology has discovered that surprises play a significant role in enhancing learning. Although many questions remain about the mechanisms involved, scientists have uncovered some tantalizing bits of evidence in their research. In this post, I review what I’ve learned.

Surprises amplify learning because of novelty’s impact on our attention and memory. Encountering something unexpected diverts our attention from the predictably commonplace and awakens our curiosity. Surprises trigger a cascade of neural activity in which dopamine plays a key role. Dopamine acts as a chemical messenger, transmitting signals between neurons and strengthening connections between them, especially in the memory-related regions of the brain. Dopamine levels surge when surprises occur, instigating responses driving us to explore and gather more information.  As added information gets encoded and memories are consolidated, we retain the surprising event with greater clarity.

Our brain’s response to surprises enhances deep learning by promoting active engagement and critical thinking. Humans are wired to try to make sense of novel information by integrating it with what they already know. The associated cognitive process ensures that connections are made to our existing knowledge framework, resulting in new inferences and new mental models.

In addition to cognitive responses, surprises also can trigger intense emotional responses, deepening learning experiences. Emotions are catalysts for memory formation and retrieval, thus reinforcing the fundamental impact of surprises on learning. A final consequence of surprises is their positive effect on long-term motivation. The surprises that matter most are those where outcomes were more positive than expected. Through the combination of novelty, enhanced encoding, and emotional arousal, our brains more easily remember the surprise-induced learning experience. Such experiences may therefore motivate us to engage in further exploration and discovery.

Although naturally occurring surprises evoke a release of dopamine in the brain and enhance learning experiences, I strongly encourage instructors to intentionally incorporate surprises into their planning. Here are three instructional techniques that you can use to take full advantage of the effects of surprises.

First, create thought-provoking experiments or demonstrations: Introduce surprising experiments or demonstrations that challenge students’ existing understandings   and assumptions. Challenged by unexpected outcomes or phenomena, you will capture their attention and spark a surge in dopamine. These surprises will pique their curiosity and encourage active engagement and critical thinking as they strive to make sense of the unexpected results. The element of surprise in the learning process will also help them retain the information more effectively.

Second, use unexpected questions or discussion prompts: Incorporate unexpected questions or discussion questions that deviate from the predictable course of the lesson. Pose thought-provoking queries or present real-life scenarios that challenge students’ perspectives or invite them to think creatively. For example, I sometimes put questions on the board that prompt students to complete a sentence which requires them to extrapolate from principles we have learned but using examples we have not covered yet. This approach sparks cognitive dissonance, triggering a release of dopamine as students grapple with innovative ideas or unconventional viewpoints. By encouraging them to explore alternative solutions or consider multiple perspectives, this strategy enhances their critical thinking skills and promotes deeper learning.

Third, bring in guest speakers or take students on field trips: Bring in speakers with personal experience relevant to the week’s lessons and ask them to reflect on how our readings match up with their experiences. Such visits require you to collaborate with the guests prior to their visit, giving them access to the course management system so they can see the readings and explaining your goals for the day’s class meeting.  

Organize unexpected field trips related to the subject matter. For example, on a day when we were talking about the way in which automated technical controls around our campus were used to control their behavior, I sent them out for a 20 minute scavenger hunt to the dining hall and campus bookstore with the goal of them bringing back the best examples they could find. These unexpected encounters expose students to different perspectives and real-world applications, breaking the monotony of traditional classroom settings. The element of surprise not only stimulates dopamine release but also generates excitement and emotional engagement.

Incorporating surprises into college classrooms can significantly enhance students’ learning experiences by capitalizing on the brain’s release of dopamine. By employing thought-provoking experiments and demonstrations, unexpected questions and discussion prompts, and guest speakers and field trips, you can harness the power of surprises to cultivate active engagement, critical thinking, deeper understanding, and long-lasting motivation among your students.