Boredom in the classroom

A talk given at the Annual General Meeting for the Learning Disabilities Association of Peel Region, by Dr. Adrienne Eastwood, Psychologist

Good evening, and thank you for inviting me to speak at your AGM.

Tonight I would like to talk to you about some interesting research about the feeling of boredom, and how it impacts learning in the classroom. I hope my talk won’t bore you!

We have all experienced boredom at one point or another, and no one likes the feeling. Boredom is an unpleasant feeling that happens when we want something interesting to do, but for whatever reason, we can’t find it. When do you feel bored?

When we are bored, we are disengaged with whatever is happening around us, and we wish that we had something to do that would capture our interest.

People who are bored may be kind of agitated or frustrated, or they may appear more sloth-like. Either way, people who are bored have trouble concentrating, and they feel like time is moving slowly.

In contrast, when a person is interested in something, they enjoy that activity, they are focused on it, and it is very likely that they will try to do that activity again.

So, does boredom happen in the classroom? Of course it does.

Boredom can be a big problem in the classroom. Research on boredom in the classroom has shown that kids who report more boredom are less motivated, have poorer study strategies, and lower academic achievement.

And if you are a parent of a child with ADHD or LDs, then perhaps you have heard your child complain about being bored at school.

There actually isn’t much research yet about boredom in people with ADHD/LD, but there is good reason to believe that there is an important relationship there that needs to be investigated. For example, some of the same brain regions are implicated in both boredom and ADHD. One important network of brain structures is called the Default Mode Network or (DMN) . The DMN is active when people’s minds are wandering or when they are “off task”. The DMN is quiet when people are concentrating. Not surprisingly, the DMN is generally more active in people with ADHD than in those who do not have ADHD. And the DMN is also more active when all people are bored compared to when they are not.

So, there is a connection between academic problems and boredom. But what comes first? Are students performing poorly because they are bored? If so, maybe teachers need to jazz it up. Or, are students bored because they are performing poorly? If so, then students may need support for learning so that they can more easily engage with the material. Researchers are only just beginning to untangle this chicken-egg problem.

So far, it looks like the causal direction goes both ways. In other words, students who are initially bored experience a subsequent drop in academic achievement, which then results in their feeling even more bored.

One interesting study cleverly distracted people on purpose, to see whether they would feel bored. How did they distract them? The researchers asked participants to listen to an educational audio recording and rate how bored they felt under three different conditions. In the first condition, there was a loud, clearly noticeable noise in the adjacent room – this was called the conscious distraction condition because the participants knew that they were being distracted. In the second condition, there was a just noticeable noise in the adjacent room – this was called the unconscious distraction condition. The last condition involved no distraction at all. Who felt the most bored? It was actually the people in the unconscious distraction condition. Their distraction resulted in lowered attention, and they reported more boredom because they didn’t realize they were being distracted by the noise. Instead, they figured they were distracted because the recording must have been boring. People in the conscious distraction condition realized they were being distracted, but didn’t report more boredom, because they blamed the loud noise for getting them off track.

A leading boredom researcher, John Eastwood, along with his colleagues, have developed a model of boredom. In a nutshell, they propose that when we fail to become mentally engaged in the world around us, we will feel bored. And when we are bored, we are not learning well.

Psychological research supports the idea that paying attention to things increases our interest and engagement. Consider the following research findings:

• If you ask people to pay attention to objects, then later on they will rate them more positively than objects they have not paid attention to. This is called the “exposure effect”.
• In general, the more often we encounter a particular object, the more we like it.
• Even just gazing or looking at an object will result in our preferring that object over another one.
• When it comes to information and learning, researchers have shown that people prefer information that is processed deeply as opposed to shallowly.
• On the other hand, objects that we actively ignore are subsequently judged more negatively. This is called the ‘distractor devaluation,’ effect.
• stimuli that we struggle to focus our attention on becomes less interesting, and this difficulty in processing appears to give rise to more feelings of boredom.

In summary, research suggests that we: like things we deliberately pay attention to; dislike things we deliberately avoid paying attention to; and find boring things that are difficult for us to pay attention to.

John thinks that teachers and students need to notice when students feel even a little bored, because that likely means that students are disengaged from the learning process, and a change is needed to facilitate learning. If we learn to notice that we are bored, then we can be ready to make a change that will hopefully promote interest and engagement. In this way, boredom can be a helpful feeling, just like anxiety or even pain. Boredom tells us that something is wrong and we need to fix it.

As educators, we need to tackle the problem of boredom head on; otherwise our students will find maladaptive ways of coping with boredom. Because boredom is such a yucky feeling, students tend to look for quickest and easiest way to feel better. Unfortunately, this often results in focusing attention on something other than the task at hand (e.g., acting out in class).

It’s important to remember that the person who is bored is actually highly motivated to be engaged in something, they are just struggling to engage with whatever they are being asked to learn in that moment. It’s not that the bored student doesn’t care, or doesn’t want to learn; in fact it can be quite the opposite.

So what can we do to help students?

If we know that distraction and difficulty engaging with material is the main cause of boredom, then we must ask ourselves what are the possible causes of a student’s distraction, and address those.

There are surely many reasons why students are distracted in the classroom. Today I would just like to touch on one particular issue that is important to me as a psychologist, and that I know will be important to all of you as well.

There are many students out there with undiagnosed learning disabilities and ADHD. As you know, Learning disabilities and ADHD are neurodevelopmental disorders that start in childhood and that are lifelong. They interfere with learning in a variety of ways – these are students who are of average intelligence but they process information differently, and, as a result, end up falling behind academically. Students with both learning disabilities and ADHD have trouble engaging with learning at school, particularly when the approach to teaching or classroom management does not meet their particular needs. For example, kids with ADHD need to move in order to learn. If the classroom teacher does not allow for movement, then a student with ADHD will be more distracted and less engaged. I would predict those students would complain of being bored. Likewise, students with writing disabilities generally find most paper and pencil tasks difficult to complete. Because their learning disability prevents them from engaging with writing tasks, they’re likely to complain of boredom. But what if that same student is given the opportunity to dictate, talk or role-play? Then you’d see that student would be engaged, and would not likely complain of boredom.

These few examples illustrate the importance of understanding every child’s learning profile when trying to find ways to engage them. Psychological assessments are one important way to get a better understanding of child’s learning needs, and to make sure that neurodevelopmental disorders do not go undiagnosed.

As you may know, our healthcare system, as wonderful as it is, lacks equity when it comes to mental health. Not everyone who needs to see a psychologist gets to see one. That is why I’m so excited to partner with your organization to provide psychological assessments to students who need them, but who have not been able to access them. Thanks to your dedicated advocacy efforts on behalf of families, more children will be able to get the help they need to engage in learning. Together, we will help more kids spark an interest in learning that will put boredom in its place!