Wednesday, October 10, 2012
The conventional wisdom is that if students are bored, it's the teacher's fault for not being more interesting. However, according to new studies summarized and reported by Education Week, perhaps teachers are taking too much responsibility for a problem that is partially attributable to students' emotional state.
"I think teachers should always try to be relevant and interesting, but beyond that, there are other places to look," said John D. Eastwood, an associate professor of psychology at York University in Toronto, Canada, and the lead author of the study. "By definition, to be in the state of boredom is to say the world sucks out there in some way. But often that's not the case; often it's an interior problem, and [students] are looking in the wrong place to solve the problem."
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Lack of Focus
Under Mr. Eastman and his colleagues' definition, a student who is bored cannot focus attention to engage in the class activity—and blames that inability to focus on the outside environment. A dry lecture style or an uninteresting topic might trigger boredom, Mr. Eastman said, but so can other issues that interfere with a student's attention and working memory.
For example, students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are more likely to report feeling bored than students with normal attention. Students tackling material that is too difficult for them—and thus taking up more working memory—also are more likely to report it is "boring" rather than simply frustrating, Mr. Eastman and other researchers found.
"When people are in a negative emotional state, discouraged, or down, we know that causes attention problems," Mr. Eastman said. "We know when people are stressed it makes it harder to focus and pay attention at a very basic, fundamental level."
Like any type of stress, boredom hampers the prefrontal cortex, the brain area positioned just behind that student's furrowed brow that allows a student to reason and hold different facts in working memory.
Disrupting the brain's executive function also allows its emotional center, the amygdala, to take over, which might explain why bored students are more likely to feel tired, anxious, or depressed, and why they sometimes respond by either "acting out or zoning out," according to Judy Willis, a neurologist and teacher educator from Santa Barbara, Calif., who was not part of the report.
In fact, boredom and other types of stress appear to feed on each other. Students who are stressed due to emotional trauma, for example, are more likely to disengage and feel bored, which adds to their stress.
'Reappraising' Dull Tasks
Reducing boredom and its underlying stress can reduce misbehavior and increase focus—in both the bored child and in surrounding students, Ms. Willis said.
Effective ways to reduce boredom can be counterintuitive to students looking for a quick fix, though. "I think if someone is bored, the worst thing you can do is respond to it by overstimulating," Mr. Eastman said. "It's like quicksand; if you just thrash around, you're even more stuck."
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Ulrike E. Nett, a student motivation researcher at the University of Konstanz, Germany, studied the coping strategies of 976 students in grades 5-10 who were given a mathematics problem selected to be potentially boring and difficult. Some "avoided" the task, either by studying a different subject or by talking with friends. Others criticized it and asked for more interesting material or assignments. Still others "reappraised" the situation for themselves, considering ways it could be relevant to them and how to combat their own boredom.
For the student, "it's important to learn, when I feel bored, that's an opportunity for me to become aware of my disengagement and address it," said Mr. Eastman, who was not part of Ms. Nett's study.
The last group of students had higher academic achievement in the task and reported both more enjoyment and less anxiety. Moreover, Ms. Nett found that students who were able to identify and reappraise their own feelings of boredom had fewer bored episodes over time.
Continue reading here.