I like to talk to my students about boredom.
I hear from them that lots of things are boring – a course, an assignment, school in general – and when they say this I want to know why because boredom is a significant impediment to learning, the peak (or nadir) of non-engagement.
If we want students to learn, I think we need to take boredom seriously and treat it as the complicated emotion we know it to be.
I’ve compiled an incomplete list of what students mean when they tell me something is “boring,” and added what I think they really mean, based on deeper conversations with them.
1. “School is boring.” I’m not sure if college is the right choice for me.
Our cultural narrative where a college degree is a virtual necessity for success and happiness isn’t doing us any favors on this front. I talk to students who are otherwise lively and engaged people for whom a four-year traditional degree is simply not something they want at this time, and perhaps ever.
1a. “School is boring.” I’m in the wrong major.
Maybe even more common than #1.
2. “This class is boring.” I don’t know how this course is relevant to my interests/major/etc.
I hear this most often in the context of general education courses where students believe they’re being made to jump through non-contextualized hoops. To them, these courses often look like high school, just a little bit more difficult, and therefore even more boring.
3. “Writing is boring.” I’ve had bad experiences in previous writing courses.
I have many students who, on entering my first-year writing course, will tell me that writing is even worse than boring, more like actively horrible. When I ask why, I hear stories about the kinds of writing they’ve been asked to do previously (often tied to standardized assessments), and I begin to understand why they think writing is boring. Writing has been decoupled from any larger context or meaning. It is simply a task we do, as ordered by a teacher.
Sounds pretty boring.
4. “Calculus is boring.” I am afraid that I might not succeed at this course, no matter how hard I try.
Sometimes the “boring” declaration is a mask for self-doubt and/or confusion. They are opting out before they ever opt in.
5. “Professor So-and-So’s class is boring.” Professor So-and-So’s class is boring.
Sometimes stuff really is boring.
There are likely other variants, but I think the common thread is that students experience boredom most often when what they are being asked to do is not tied to something that carries genuine meaning to themselves.
I think this makes students no different than anyone else. One of the perks of adulthood is that I get to organize my life primarily (though not exclusively) around my areas of interest. In college, you very well might have heard me say, “This book is boring,” and resent the fact that I needed to keep slogging forward, but now when I say “This book is boring,” I put the book down and pick up another.
I also have the perspective to view the “boring” work that I have to do (grading, for instance) in a larger context, which makes it significantly easier to manage. Imagine having to grade without knowing it was tied to the rest of your work in the course. That’s straight-up torture.
It's a mistake to tell students to "fight through" or "deal with" boredom without giving them the tools necessary to do such a thing.
As the professionals overseeing the work of education, I believe we should listen for what’s underneath when students claim “boredom.” When students are experiencing boredom because they either shouldn’t be in college or are pursuing a degree that’s a bad fit, they should be nudged towards the counsel that will help them shift their path.
And in the other cases, I think it’s a trap to try to combat student “boredom” with “entertainment.” We will never be as entertaining as things designed for that purpose.
But we can be something better: engaging. I have yet to meet the student that isn’t curious about something. This is why in my writing courses I try to give as much latitude as possible (inside of the assignment objectives) to write about their own interests.
Sometimes, combating student boredom has been as simple as explaining why we’re doing something, and I haven’t had to change a thing, other than how I present the work. Peer response to student drafts used to get heavy groans of protest, but once I started explaining the context, that they’re not meant to “grade” each other’s work, but to use someone else’s writing as a vehicle to reflect on their own, attitudes improved and boredom dropped. (Though it obviously didn’t disappear.)
Ultimately, it’s up to the students to decide how deeply they want to engage. It is their educations, after all. But by taking boredom seriously, I can knock down as many barriers as possible.