Abstract Students’ learning has been the center of schooling. This study examined the contribution of situational interest motivation and cognitive engagement in workbooks to student achievement in learning health-related fitness knowledge. Situational interest, performance on solving workbook problems, and knowledge gain in cardio-respiratory fitness and benefits were measured in 670 third-grade students from 13 randomly selected urban elementary schools. Structural equation modeling and regression curve estimation analyses revealed that situational interest contributed little to workbook performance and knowledge gain. Performance on solving workbook problems contributed significantly to knowledge gain. The results also show that skipping workbook tasks had stronger negative impact on knowledge gain than performing the tasks incorrectly, suggesting the importance of engaging students in the learning process by attempting the workbook tasks. The findings reinforced the value of using workbooks to facilitate cognitive knowledge learning in physical education, but raised questions about the direct function of situational interest on engaging students in cognitive learning.