Skip to main content

Want to hear a simple, surefire way to get kids interested in what you’re teaching?

First, think back to your childhood. For kids, the world can be a wonderful, mysterious place. That’s why, as any parent knows, children are naturally full of questions. Why is the sky blue? Why do I dream? Why do birds fly south for the winter? The list goes on and on.

As we grow up, we solve these mysteries and fill our heads with facts. Over time, we start to forget what made things so interesting to us in the first place. As teachers, it’s easy for us to take a Joe Friday “just-the-facts, ma’am” approach to teaching. As a result, we blow the suspense for children. We come right out and tell them the answers to the mystery, rather than building their interest by posing questions such as, “Have you ever seen a shooting star? What do you suppose that is?”

A few years ago, Robert Cialdini,  a psychologist at Arizona State University, wrote an article titled, “What’s the secret device for engaging student interest? Hint: The answer is in the title.” After sifting through dozens of dry science articles, Cialdini found that engaging science writers take a different approach: they pose a question, for example, “What are the rings of Saturn made of? Rock or ice?” Then they build suspense and mystery before finally resolving the mystery. The answer, in this case (spoiler alert!), is both.

Teachers, can, of course, do the same thing in their classrooms. Instead of coming right out and providing kids with the answers, they can build suspense in all kinds of subject areas, not just science. For example, in social studies, a teacher might offer this mystery: How could a rag tag army of volunteers (the American revolutionaries) defeat the world’s greatest superpower at the time (the British empire)? In math, a teacher might get kids wondering how to calculate the area of a circle. Gee … wouldn’t it be great if there were some kind of “magic” formula for that?

At two upcoming events—a lecture here in Colorado on Jan. 15 and a free, national, NASA-sponsored webcast on Jan. 20—McREL staff members will offer up some big space science mysteries (and their answers), helping teachers think about how to design their lessons around these mysteries.

So as you plan your next lesson, you might ask yourself, what’s the mystery here?

Bryan Goodwin is McREL’s Vice President of Communications and Marketing.

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.


  • Esther Smith says:

    I would add that the secret to engaging students is to diverge from the authoritarian model of teaching and move to guided inquiry as practice. This sounds so simple, yet, it is complex.
    Most of the complexity of implementing inquiry in the classroom comes from the interactions among teachers and students. (In my opinion, at least.) These interactions, though simple, determine whether or not the intellectual space needed for inquiry will exist. Without that space, essential questions, like those described above fall flat. Thud. Kerplunk. Poof. You get the idea.
    Prompting, Prompting, Prompting.
    Much of the focus on teaching is in lessons and lesson planning, which is necessary and good. Yet, the interactions that determine the intellectual quality of the classroom are in the prompt. (Again, this is my non-researched experience talking, my opinion from what I have seen and experienced.)
    Take the following dialogue:
    Teacher: What makes a hero?
    Student: You mean like superman?
    Teacher: No, like a real hero.
    Student: (Non responsive)
    Contrast this dialogue with the next:
    Teacher: What makes a hero?
    Student: You mean like superman?
    Teacher: Tell me more about superman…
    Student: He wears a cape, he flies and he hides his identity…
    Teacher: Great let’s start there.
    In the second dialogue, the teacher built on the student’s response through a prompt. In the first, the teacher shut down the student’s response through a non-thinking reaction.
    The first teacher, though posing an essential question, has yet to understand his/her role in inquiry. The second teacher prompts the student to believe that their cognitive processes are valid and capable of producing thought.
    Of course, I strive to be the second teacher.
    P.S. I would have loved to attend the NASA sponsored webcast. Where can I find out more about such opportunities?
    Your thoughts,

  • Ashley Brewer says:

    I think this is a wonderful idea for any subject matter that is going to be “boring” as students put it. This would be a great way to get students fired up about learning a new topic of interest or subject. This would be a great suggestion for teachers that might start experiencing burnout. Then after the lesson is complete one could reflect on how the overall approach went. Did it engage students? Were they excited to find out about the new topic/subject? How could I have done this lesson differently? All of these would be great ways to review and monitor your approach to teaching the lessons.

  • Karen Pankratz says:

    I believe any chance students have to find an answer out for themselves makes the learning process more interesting. I just finished a mini-unit on space and when you’re teaching 5th graders and you’re trying to keep the unit “mini” it’s not very easy. My kiddos came up with amazing questions that I had no idea the answers to (for example, Do black holes have a lifespan?)! It was awesome and overwhelming. I finally developed a plan for all those wonderful questions. I had them write them down on post-it notes and then as time allowed I’d have students look up the answers to the questions and share what they found out. Sometimes I’d have students take the questions home to research as well. They loved the opportunity to research the questions and were even willing to write out lengthy answers because it didn’t seem like work.
    Another way I use mystery in my teaching is by using project-based learning. I am very new at this form of learning, though, and I’m still getting the hang of coming up with intriguing project ideas and how to structure the whole experience. If anyone has ideas I’d love to hear them. I’m specifically leaning towards Colonial Life and the Revolutionary War.

  • phillyteach says:

    This is so true. I am a kindergarten teacher and I try to make the sillest things soo exciting for my students. They love it. They get so excited so hear anything. Maybe we should try this with the older grades.

  • Katie Gottschall says:

    I think that bringing mystery to the classroom is a much needed teaching strategy. I agree that it is easy to forget what made school magical for us as students, and as a result we can fall into the trap of creating boring lessons that do not engage our students. Inquiry based learning is proven to help students think critically and really dig-in to their learning. Thank you for sharing your great teaching tip!

  • Jessica Patterson says:

    This technique is wonderful for making students who often struggle with a subject, such as math, feel as if they have a purpose. So often, when something is difficult for a student they shut down and become unengaged. By creating a challenge and deeming them a “detective”, another level of interest is added that adds motivation and provides them with a reason to find the answer.

  • Sarah Freeman says:

    I believe that students at every level want to be engaged in their learning. I currently teach a k/1 class and I try to make every lesson engaging and exciting for my students. Even at the younger level, my students feel so proud of themselves when they discover the answer rather than me telling them the answer. Next year, I am going to try to have most of my science classes outside. I want me students to be able to explore and find answers for themselves. Creating hands-on and engaging lessons make teaching more fun!

  • Jamie says:

    It seems so many times these days, students get to a problem they don’t understand or one that where the answer does not come right away and their response is to shut down. Where did this fear of failure come from? I have a few students like this in my class, who in fact are GATE (Gifted and Talented). These are the students who have these higher level thinking skills, but their fear of getting the answer wrong or getting less than an A+ stops them in their tracks. I love this idea of asking open ended questions where there is not just one “right” answer because the students realize their purpose in the learning process. I would love some ideas on how to successfully implement inquiry in the classroom to all students!

  • Jennifer says:

    I agree with this teaching strategy. I am currently teaching 2nd grade and sometimes it’s easier to just give the students facts. However, I have found that the students are more engaged when inquiry takes place. Also, during the inquiry process the students are more involved and that makes teaching less stressful. The behaviors start to diminish because the students are interested in what they are doing. Asking the students to find the answers before giving them the answers helps to open up their brains and really engage in active learning. After reading through the responses, it has reminded me to focus on inquiry based teaching and learning.

  • Stephanie says:

    I have struggled with keeping my students engaged in the lesson. I think that it is necessary to put a little “mystery” into what you are teaching. Most of the time we just give the students the answer and then we move on. I have found that if the students fugure out the answer by themselves they are more excited about learning. They also seem to remember how they solved the problem and they can use the same strategy for another problem. I going to integrate more hands-on and inquiry based lessons in my curriculum next year.

  • stephanie says:

    I always asked myself why aren’t the children engaged with the lesson that I teach. By reading this article I know understand. I always give the students the answers they are looking for. As a child I was always asking questions and now if I change my lessons around to ask the questions in the lesson title the children will be more engaged. I never really thought that the slightest change will keep the students engaged and curious of what the lesson is about.

  • susan strouse says:

    I agree with using this mystery strategy for teaching students. I teach 8th grade math and find my students more interested in what they will be learning if I pose a question to them prior to teaching the lesson. I have often posted a problem and told them to work together to try to solve it. Other times I have posted a problem, shown the steps to solve it and then had one posted for them to try. I think this way of teaching helps to make them feel more comfortable if they get an answer wrong. Additionally, I believe that when students discover the answer using this mystery method, they have a better chance of retaining the information than when spoon fed it.

  • Brian Beck says:

    I’m a high school Spanish teacher. I’ve been teaching Spanish for three years. I also am the only foreign language teacher in my school where taking a foreign language is required for graduation. I get all types of students, with about half actually wanting to learn. My dilemma is that the other half are taking my class just because they have to. I do my best to make Spanish applicable and fun, but I still get students who ask me why they have to learn Spanish in America? I tell them that being bilingual is a great way to find a good job that probably pays better, but they just don’t care. Are their any suggestions on making Spanish fun, or interjecting a little mystery into the class?

  • Edgar Santana says:

    Mystery is a good way to keep students engaged. However, I don’t know if that would be enough for my 6th grade students. On Fridays, we have what we call “Clinic Friday” for review. And on these days, I assign specific tasks that cover the concepts in different ways. For example, yesterday, I assigned a task which had a number of 3 different figures, and asked for the students to identify ratios first. Then it asks if there are a specific amount of one figure, how many would there be of another. They knew what to do with the ratios, but were a bit stumped with proportional aspects. They stayed engaged because they felt they knew what to do. When they asked questions, I answered with a question (I know I shouldn’t answer a question with a question), but they understand why. I don’t give them answers, but I do say things like “great idea”, “I wonder if that will work?”, “why does that make sense?”, etc. It’s keeping them on the cusp which keeps them engaged. Kind of that dangling carrot. On any day, they know when I don’t ask a question, they’ve got it. And it’s that satisfaction that they rejoice in.

  • Donna Richards says:

    Great strategy! Who doesn’t love suspense and mystery? As an elementary special education teacher, I rely on games or fun materials (i.e. white boards and dry erase markers) to engage my students. Just today we played a number elimination game to review math concepts. Students were trying to solve the mystery of which number was the mystery number. The game was very popular and students were willing to miss a few minutes of recess in order to finish the second round.
    After reading this blog and the many comments, I will look to infuse more mystery and suspense into my instruction. It is a strategy that can be worked into every age level, every subject area.

  • Cannon says:

    This is so true! As a teacher, I just have to remember to put the mystery back into my teaching, daily! Thanks for the reminder of this simple fact!

  • hughes says:

    I teach highschool biology. My students love mystries. My students do a murder meal mystery using biomolecules to see where the victum last ate. They love it.

  • Deborah Strickland says:

    As a middle school social studies teacher, I find the quickest way to engage my students is to pose a mystery to be solved. Since some of them already have a good base of general knowledge (topics in American history), I find it is best to use some obscure bit of history to “hook” the students. I have even used a “History’s Mysteries” board in my classroom to pose questions for outside research. The previous comments concerning our students’ desire to have one correct answer and have it immediately provided for them are correct at first. It has been my experience that further exposure to solving mysteries will encourage students to get past the desire for immediately provided answers.

  • Pat Manley says:

    After reading your article, I think I will give my algebra lessons lessons a title posed in question form to engage the students’ curiosity. Thanks for reminding us to ensure that learning is joyous!

  • Faith Hollingsworth says:

    I think when students are given the opportunity to find the answer on their own they are more likely to retain the information or concepts they are learning. I do a unit on Matter where it is guided inquiry labs. This is a good teaching tool. You learn a lot about what the students DON’T know. Also I think they work harder when they are in charge so to speak.

  • Kids love doing. When I first taught in the 1970’s I used a program called the Australian Science Education Project. It was inovative for its time. It had a lot of stories in it that showed the “mystery of science.:

  • Jared Williams says:

    Starting with a question and having students work together to come up with answers is something I have become more conscious of in the last couple of years of my teaching. I try to give students time to think about a question posed at least once a lesson. I think where I need to continue to develop is to work on the mystery element. Making sure that the question is an engaging one that grabs their interest.

  • Robin Green says:

    I agree with this article. When I was working towards my bachelors degree in college I had a teacher that preached the use of inquiry. As we know inquiry is the act of asking questions and my professor believed in asking lots and lots of questions as a way to motivate our brains. She stressed the importance of starting a lesson by asking questions to promote thinking. Now that I am a teacher I also use this approach when starting a lesson. Throughout my lessons I focus on different level questioning to ensure that I reach all of the students ability levels that are in my class. The use of questioning is also very important in the school that I teach at. One way that our school ensures that teachers are asking questions to improve student learning is by having a place to list three different leveled questions on our lesson plan templates.
    After reading this article it has made me think about making my questions more mysterious. I think that students will be more motivated to learn and to stay on task by providing some mystery or suspense in a lesson. Recently I have been researching classroom management strategies on ways to keep students on task and I feel this technique will improve student learning by actively engaging the students giving them less time to exhibit challenging behaviors.

  • Paula says:

    My school is shifting to a more inquiry-based model. This article was helpful for me to see how I can use the idea of mysteries and detectives in all content areas to promote inquiry. Students are more engaged/motivated because they want to find the answers to their questions. This helps lower the amount of misbehavior. I especially liked the question posed for social studies about the Revolutionary War. I will be more mindful of incorporating inquiry questions into my lessons this year.

  • Thanks, everyone for all of your comments on this blog. FYI … my colleague, John Ristvey, and I expanded it into a more full-length article for Principal Leadership magazine:

  • caryl says:

    This is a good reminder of how much more engaging learning can be if we ask questions. They often step up to the challenge.
    I was a part of developing a school wide murder mystery where we killed the princpal! Each class had its own part. With so many crime solving shows on tv, the kids love to solve their own. We can use this time to teach how unrealistic though the tv makes it. We do not have as many top notch equipped labs as we do on all of the shows.

  • caryl says:

    You are correct Esther. Often teachers shut off students and they quit. Why do we have to think their is only one path to find the answer?

  • I enjoyed reading this article. I actually forget myself that when teaching to just let the students explore, and find the answers on their own. It seems like these day as a teacher we have so much that is expected of us that just do not take the time to let the students figure things out. I have on many occasions just read a story, and had a discussion, and basically tell the students the answers to their questions. That is something that I am working on. I will keep this article in the back of my head while I’m in the classroom so that I can let the students have a little more control and excitment by trying to learn the answers to their questions on their own without me telling them all the time.

  • Sushma Shirsath says:

    I agree with this article. We spend too much time in planning the lesson than designing the learning. I think, If I model too quickly, my students do not get the process (thinking is lost). To makes lessons more engaging students should think. Instead of just covering stuff, we should pay attention on uncover stuff. I do not display my objective of the lesson on the board at he beginning of the lesson. I try to create a mystery, and probe into their prior knowledge before even starting the lesson.

  • Becky says:

    Using the element of mystery is easy in the primary grades. It is amazing when I put on my dark sunglasses and call myself the “Word Detective” when decoding word lines with my kindergarteners. Some even think the word detective is actually a different person, since I step behind the board and emerge as the class’ favorite reading hero. Bringing true engagement to a classroom requires a lot of theatrical build up and being a bit of a ham.
    With young students we can call something magical and a simple object (like the whole group floor rug) becomes the magic carpet of learning. Having students think of themselves as explorers of knowledge helps them to take ownership of their learning. Then when they reach their goal, that you have actually guided them to, they feel the pride of success and the hunger for more.

  • Penny says:

    Keeping the suspense is the perfect way to keep the students engaged! I want my students to get the big picture on their own without me just giving them the answers and I noticed a higher student engagement level. My students like to wonder what is going to happen next!

  • Dsmit22 says:

    This is a very simple idea that gets overlooked too often. We often forget that our point of view is different than our students because of our prior knowledge.

  • Lisa Broussard says:

    I truly enjoyed reading this article. I have been teaching for twenty years now and needed the reminder to make learning fun for the students. They definitely enjoy a great mystery and will remember more if they are engaged and the teacher is not simply giving the information.

  • Lisa Roy says:

    I absolutely love this method. My Chemistry students are able to get involved from the start and stay engaged. They feel the “power” of discovery in lecture and in lab!!

  • Ashleigh says:

    I agree with this article. Asking questions is a great way to catch students’ interests. It also serves as a great way for students to build schema when starting a lesson. In addition, I have also been a part of professional development, where we learned to give the students a topic and they present the inquiries. For example, given the topic of plants, students may ask the question: Why are leaves green? A dialogue between the students has been initiated as to why they think the leaves are green and offers a perfect transition into studying plant cells. Inquiry learning is also exciting for teachers—you really get to see the students’ thoughts and imagination come to life.

  • Sarah says:

    I’m having one of those, “Why didn’t I think of that?” moments. I teach eighth grade students in Math 8 and Algebra 1 and they are often more interested in the social aspect of school than math class. Making my lessons a little bit more mysterious could really change that. I already have some ideas for my Pythagorean Theorem unit!

  • Erica says:

    I agree with this inquiry based approach. In fact, in the district where I work we are required to teach inquiry based lessons once a month. These lessons are different because they have students construct their own meaning for terms and concepts. Teachers are not just giving a boring lecture, but having the students make their own meaning. I find these lessons to be very effective and the students absolutely love the hands on activites!

  • Mike C says:

    It certainly think inquiry based questioning is an excellent way to increase student involvement and keep their attention. I have always struggled to come up with new ways to keep students actively involved throughout the lesson. Grabbing their attention and holding it for long periods of time is certainly something that effective, high quality teachers do a good job of. I think questioning without giving answers is probably something many of us do without even knowing it. It seems like such a simple technique to imply, but often overlooked. Being able to generate class room discussion without always having to serve as the facilitator is something I try to strive for.

  • Susann Mitchell says:

    The ideas mentioned are fabulous – sometimes I struggle, however, applying this to the foreign languages classroom. Cultural content is easy to introduce like this but grammar or vocabulary? If anyone has any tips ….. ?

  • Paul Martin says:

    I especially like this approach in science classes where the outcomes of investigations can be very different to the students’ expectations.

  • Emily says:

    What a great and simple way to peak a child’s interest. Who doesn’t want to solve a mystery? I can just imagine the thinking going on in my fifth graders’ minds. I know they will be able to come up with their “own” answers. Their ability to solve the mystery will allow them to “own” the answer and come up with some their own mystery questions for the class to solve. Thank you for this great idea.

  • Lisa says:

    This seems like such a simple idea, but as adults we forget. How often do we hear comments like “Through the eyes of a child” or “I be a child again”. As we grow older the most of us lose the wonder of investigating and learning new things. It has made me think about how I can work the mystery into my classroom.

  • Diane Rochleau says:

    Inquiry based learning works great in the middle school science classroom. I find the only issue to be too many questions. That seems like an issue to desire, but it can be hard for the perfectionist learning to trust that the answers will be found. To give themselves time to solve the problem. Once they have done this one time they like it but it is a process.

  • Angela Creel says:

    I teach 8th grade science & most of my students love mysteries. I love your suggestions, but have seen in recent years that there are a few students who are not even motivated by a good mystery!! This group seems to be getting larger….any suggestions??? I do use many labs too, but more & more, I see students who don’t seem to have a passion for anything. (even if they get to choose their area of study)

  • Amy Sarchet says:

    Keeping students interest alive is about the only way to truly motivate and keep them engaged. Students who are allowed to discover will go as far into the topic as they want. Some will stop after finding the answer to the teacher’s question, others will continue to explore this and related topics based on their own level of interest. What a great way to get students to take charge of their own learning.

  • @ Angela Creel. Thanks for your comments; it sounds like your students need some additional encouragement or ways to link what’s going on in your classroom to their own aspirations. You might consider ensuring they have personalized learning objectives. Also, I’m sure you’re already trying some of these other techniques, but you might check out this other post on what I learned (in hindsight) I should’ve been doing to motivate my students:
    Best wishes.
    Bryan Goodwin

Leave a Reply