What’s What in Education? №7 Boredom Kills!
It’s true. According to a substantial body of educational and psychological research, boredom kills! Kills motivation to learn, that is. Students who find their classroom work to be a waste of time, lacking in any intrinsic motivation, not challenging, and not engaging will simply go through the motions of participating in class. They become skilled at “looking busy” and completing the minimum work necessary to satisfy their teachers’ expectations. They don’t absorb the content of the lesson, as they have determined, in advance, that they already knew enough of it to get by. These students also become skilled at responding to the occasional question posed by their teacher, by using educational jargon and double-speak. Teachers are, generally, okay with this and choose to either expand on the students’ response to give it more substance or accept it and move on.
Of equal concern are those students who respond to their feelings of boredom by acting out in some manner. “If people don’t have the inner resources to deal with boredom constructively, they might do something destructive to fill the void,” (Teresa Belton 2001) It is suggested that this problem is associated with the overwhelming amount of more stimulating material that students are exposed to in the media and online. (John D. Eastwood, 2007)
A 2013 Gallup poll of 500,000 students in grades five through 12 found that nearly eight in 10 elementary students were “engaged” with school, that is, attentive, inquisitive, and generally optimistic. By high school, the number dropped to four in 10. A 2015 follow-up study found that less than a third of 11th-graders felt engaged. When Gallup asked teens in 2004 to select the top three words that describe how they feel in school from a list of 14 adjectives, “bored” was chosen most often, by half the students. “Tired” was second, at 42 percent. Only 2 percent said they were never bored. The evidence suggests that, on a daily basis, the vast majority of teenagers seriously contemplate banging their heads against their desks.
Research has begun to reveal boredom’s dismal effects in school and on the psyche. A 2014 study that followed 424 students at the University of Munich over the course of an academic year found a cycle in which boredom bore lower test results, which bore higher levels of boredom, which bore still lower test results. Boredom accounts for nearly a third of variation in student achievement. A 2010 German study found that boredom “instigates a desire to escape from the situation” that causes boredom. It’s not surprising, then, that half of high school dropouts cite boredom as their primary motivator for leaving. U.S. teenagers who said they were often bored were more than 50 percent more likely than not-bored teens to smoke, drink, and use illegal drugs. Proneness to boredom is also associated with anxiety, impulsiveness, hopelessness, loneliness, gambling, and depression. Educators and academics, Mehta, who’s been studying engagement since 2010, says, “We have to stop seeing boredom as a frilly side effect. It is a central issue. Engagement is a precondition for learning,” he adds. “No learning happens until students agree to become engaged with the material.” (Zachary Jason, 2017)
Nearly three-quarters of high school students are stressed and bored at school, a new national survey finds. “Stress is so overwhelming and really detrimental to your mental state,” she told The 74 Newsletter. “They don’t teach that stuff in school — how to handle your stress, how to identify what it is, where it’s coming from.” In fact, teens are even more stressed than adults, according to a 2014 poll by the American Psychological Association. Diagnoses of anxiety have also been on the rise in teenagers, with blame attributed to everything from smartphones to tests to gun violence. Students with poorer grades and from low-income households were more likely to report feeling this way.
Two prominent psychologists offered this summary of the situation and a potential solution:
- Boredom is common in the classroom and can have negative impacts on learning.
- The key drivers of classroom boredom are a lack of control and meaning.
- When kids have a say in their own learning, we can keep boredom at bay.
One prominent theory of boredom in school comes from Reinhard Pekrun and his colleagues, who suggest there are two primary drivers at play — control and value. For any given activity, if students feel they have no autonomy and the task seems pointless, boredom will inevitably arise. Time and monotony likely represent key determinants of control and value, respectively. When our time is not our own — when we must persist with an activity we’d rather abandon — we likely feel a loss of agency or control. And all things monotonous lack meaning. (Danckert and Eastwood 2021)
Orchids International School suggests an ongoing dialogue between teachers and students to address the issue of boredom head on. Discussions between teachers and students concerning their mutual responsibility for minimizing boredom in the classroom and encouraging teachers to be receptive to students’ feedback concerning the identification and modification of boring activities are beneficial. By addressing the issue of boredom rather than ignoring it, teachers and students can work together to reduce this harmful emotion, and in turn, facilitate academic motivation and achievement. Further, they recommend the following steps for Elementary School students:
Encourage creative thinking: Brainstorming and writing down ideas, for example, are a great way to get the mind working again if it feels like it’s starting to lag behind. This idea could also be implemented by taking turns with other classmates who may have an idea they’d like to present in front of the class.
Encourage open discussion: Encourage open discussion with classmates and teachers about ways that boredom can be overcome. No one wants to feel like they’re just sitting around being bored for their entire day, so it’s important not only to provide solutions but also to generate new ideas on how boredom could be fought back.
Bring some fun and excitement: Find ways to bring some excitement into the day. For example, students can get up and dance during a lecture that is not interactive or engaging. They could also encourage others in their class with boredom problems by having impromptu games like “Simon Says” which are always fun and will help break boredom for all those involved.
Allow them to move at their own pace: Students should be allowed to move at their own pace. Jumping on with topics in the classroom will create boredom because the lessons being taught might go over the head, and they might miss the plot. Students can also find out in advance what they will be doing for their classes. If the boredom problem is caused by a lack of understanding, then this plan might help eliminate boredom.
Make busy work fun and amazing: Educators can break up the monotony by assigning new tasks or allowing students to choose their own assignments for a change of pace.
Never stop asking questions: Students should never stop asking questions about topics that are not understood. It’s important for students to be engaged with their own education so that boredom can be avoided as much as possible!
Break in-between two subjects: Students should be allowed time in between subjects so that they have an opportunity to refresh their mind and just get ready for another school subject. Differentiation, in the form of homework or group work, can also help to combat boredom.
Boredom may be inevitable for some students at school but with these tips boredom will be combated and learning gains will increase! Teachers would do well to integrate new tasks, activities and strategies into their lesson plans so that boredom is no longer a part of the day.
Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning
By John Hattie (Routledge, 2012)
Never a dull moment: Things get interesting when psychologists take a closer look at boredom. By Kirsten Weir American Psychological Association July/August 2013, Vol 44, №7
Bored Out of Their Minds By Zachary Jason, 2017 https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/ed/17/01/bored-out-their-minds
Bored in Class: A National Survey Finds Nearly 1 in 3 Teens Are Bored ‘Most or All of the Time’ in School, and a Majority Report High Levels of Stress By Kate Stringer | January 16, 2019 https://www.the74million.org/bored-in-class-a-national-survey-finds-nearly-1-in-3-teens-are-bored-most-or-all-of-the-time-in-school-and-a-majority-report-high-levels-of-stress/
Bored at School Why giving kids more control might alleviate boredom in the classroom. Posted October 15, 2021 by James Danckert and John Eastwood https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-engaged-mind/202110/bored-school
7 Ways to Combat Boredom in School 14 Aug 2021 https://www.orchidsinternationalschool.com/blog/parents-corner/boredom-in-school/