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Students really do get bored at university – but why?

14 Nov 2018 | John G. Sharp The effects of academic boredom can be problematic, affecting student engagement and achievement in sometimes different and unanticipated ways. But what do we know about academic boredom’s sites and triggers and how might the overall quality of student experience be improved? 

The effects of academic boredom can be problematic, affecting student engagement and achievement in sometimes different and unanticipated ways. But what do we know about academic boredom’s sites and triggers and how might the overall quality of student experience be improved? Strange as it might seem, students really do get bored at university.

Given earlier success at school or at work, university does not always seem to provide the personal, social or intellectual stimulation that many need to remain actively involved. The everyday signs of academic boredom include drowsiness and yawning in class, heads resting in hands, bodies slouched in seats, vacant stares, repeated finger tapping and constantly watching the clock.

Until recently however, despite acknowledgement as a largely negative and deactivating achievement-related emotion, the formal study of academic boredom was a largely neglected and underdeveloped field. Thanks to academics working mainly in the United States, Germany and Canada, this is now changing and at a rapid pace.

In the UK, similarly emerging research suggests that undergraduates tend to get bored most frequently during traditional lectures, though boredom in seminars and tutorials, as well as when studying for exams or completing written work and other tasks, can also be quite common.

For those students more prone to academic boredom than others, familiar routines, repetition, a perceived excess and inappropriate use of PowerPoint, the personal attributes and qualities of the lecturer, relevance, a lack of interaction, poor behaviour and the lecture-theatre environment itself have all been cited as responsible: ‘Sometimes when lecturers have used a lot of PowerPoints and not really interacted with everyone in the lecture theatre it becomes a bit monotonous … I don’t like it when people turn the lights off … that makes me more sleepy … The speed of the content that’s been covered in the lecture, especially if it’s new … I get completely muddled … and the rest of the lecture becomes a blur … you’re catching up … not concentrating, completely lost and panicking a bit … I generally either doodle or go on social media … I feel frustrated at myself because I feel like I should be concentrating but then I also feel like “Why am I here?” … It feels a bit pointless.’

academic boredom

Once bored, students regularly respond by daydreaming, doodling over handouts, talking to others or simply ‘switching off’. Interestingly, and despite their value as a means of ‘escape’, the disadvantages of digital distractions associated with academic boredom in lectures, including mobile phone use, turning to social media and accessing the Internet, are also only now beginning to emerge.

With those students more prone to academic boredom than others also appearing less motivated, lacking a sense of purpose, attending university less frequently and spending little time in self-study over the course of a week, academic boredom is far from trivial, contributing in some instances to dropping out altogether or graduating with a lower class degree award.

Mindful of their reciprocal and mutually reinforcing relationships, academic boredom is a positive predictor of surface approaches to learning, a negative predictor of organised effort and a negative predictor of perceived course experience. In terms of boredom mitigation, then, what, if anything, can be done?

Derived from within the growing body of research literature itself, the nature and implications of academic boredom draw attention not only to how courses are designed, delivered and assessed but to how students are helped towards managing expectations and taking increasing responsibility for their own academic development and progression. In many instances, the suggestions presented reinforce what is already known about good practice.

In the first instance, and when writing new courses or taking older ones through revalidation, for example, it is essential to ensure that all course elements are constructively aligned and fit-for-purpose with the ongoing monitoring and evaluation of quality involving student representatives themselves.

Course aims and objectives need to be regularly reinforced including reasons why some forms of delivery and assessment are favoured over others. In terms of the many teaching-learning environments and situations students encounter, lecturers perhaps need to be more aware of the emotional impact of what they do, while seeking to improve the social climate and level of interaction in lectures in particular. Abstract information could certainly be presented in more meaningful and contextually relevant ways using concrete examples linked to prior knowledge and experience.

How new material is introduced, sequenced and explained also requires careful consideration, as does the need for more innovative uses of PowerPoint as a means of disseminating information and regulating pace. In terms of assessment, more options and choices over what to do and how to do it might be desirable, with support where required, with time for quality feedback to actually feed forward into future work (including taking care to avoid assessment overload in examination timetables).

Lecturers also need to remain mindful of how the choices they make can influence the behavioural adaptations and study habits of students which go on to promote different ways of working, not all of which might be considered productive. Directing students towards personal tutors and learning developers when necessary would not only help students focus on the more positive aspects of their work, helping to build resiliency and self-confidence, it might also help ensure the setting of appropriate and realistic goals and targets as well as an overall metacognitive awareness of the complexities and demands of learning itself.

In a sector receiving growing numbers of students from an increasingly diverse range of personal and educational backgrounds, with thoughts turning forever more to teaching excellence, student satisfaction, retention rates and value for money, perhaps the time to take achievement-related emotions like academic boredom seriously has arrived.

John G. Sharp is Professor of Education at Leeds Beckett University. He has a particular interest in the fields of lecturer self-efficacy and student engagement with a focus on academic boredom and its effects.

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