This entry was originally posted on March 3, 2011, at University of Venus blog, Blog U, Inside Higher Ed.
How do we, as tutorial leaders or professors, deal with the revelation that students find classes or entire subject areas "boring?" And to what extent is it our responsibility to get them "interested?" These were questions that came to mind as I read Itir Toksöz’s recent UVenus post about “academic boredom”. While she was discussing the boredom she experiences in conversation with colleagues, my first thought was that boredom is not just (potentially) a problem for and with academics, but also for students.
I see boredom as something other than a mere lack of interest. I think of it as a stand-in for frustration, which can, in turn, stem from a sense of exclusion from the material, from the discussion, from the class, from understanding the point of it all; ultimately an exclusion from the enjoyment of learning. This can happen when the material is too challenging, or when the student doesn’t really want to be in the class for some reason.
Boredom is sometimes about fear, the fear of failing and looking “stupid” in front of the instructor and one’s peers. In other cases it can also be a symptom that someone is far beyond the discussion and in need of a deeper or a more challenging conversation. All these things can be called “boredom” but often they are more like communicative gaps in need of bridging.
In other words, boredom is often a mask for something else. We need to remove this mask, because of the negative effects of boredom on the learning environment and process. It causes people to "tune out" from what's happening, and in almost every case it creates or is accompanied by resentment for the teacher/professor and/or for the other students. As a psychological problem, this makes boredom one of the greatest puzzles of teaching, and one of those problems that most demands attention.
It’s even more important to uncover the causes of boredom now that many students have access to wireless Internet and to Blackberries and iPhones, in the classroom. Professors and TAs complain that students are less attentive than ever while in class, because of this attachment to their devices—something I’ve encountered first-hand with my current tutorial group.
I think the attachment to gadgetry comes not from the technology itself, but from the students. In my blog I've written about the issue with students using technology to "tune out" during lectures, and they do it in tutorial as well; they're "present, yet absent". To understand this behaviour we need to keep in mind that the lure of the online (social) world is reasonable from the students’ perspective. Popular media and established social networks are accessible and entertaining, and provide positive feedback as well as a sense of comfortable familiarity. Learning is hard work, and the academic world is often alienating, difficult, and demanding. It's all-too-easy to crumple under the feeling of failure or exclusion. Facebook is welcoming and easy to use, while critical theory is not.
The other side of this equation is that in the process of negotiating and overcoming "boredom" there's a certain point at which I can meet students halfway, as it were—but I can't go beyond that point. Like everything else in teaching and learning, boredom is a two-way street, and the instructor is the one who needs to maintain the boundary of responsibility. I'm not there merely to provide an appealing performance, which leads to superficial “engagement.” I’m not “edutainment”.
However, I think it's part of my job when teaching to "open a door" to a topic or theory or set of ideas. I can't make you walk through that door (horse to water, etc.) but I can surely do my best to make sure you have the right address and a key that fits the lock. And that means using different strategies if the ones I choose don’t seem to be working.
Holding this view about boredom certainly doesn’t mean I’ve solved the problems with student attention in class; I’m reminded of that frequently. It just means I have an approach to dealing with the problem that treats their boredom as something for which there’s mutual responsibility. In an ideal learning environment there must also be mutual respect—but unfortunately mutual “boredom” is easier and often wins the day. My hope is to help cultivate the former by finding ways of unraveling the latter.