College & Workforce Readiness Commentary

The Paradox of Classroom Boredom

By Mark Bauerlein — August 06, 2013 4 min read

Why do students drop out?

An oft-cited 2006 study by the public-policy firm Civic Enterprises asked then-high-school dropouts that question and came up with unsurprising answers. Nearly half of them—47 percent—said that classes were boring, and 69 percent said that school just didn’t motivate or inspire them. Students scored personal reasons as being more of an issue than the challenge of academics. In fact, most of the dropouts believed they could have handled the work. They just weren’t motivated to do so.

The High School Survey of Student Engagement from 2010 found the same rates of boredom. It noted that 66 percent of students were bored “at least every day,” and 98 percent admitted to being bored at some point, citing uninteresting and irrelevant material as the leading causes. When asked to rate teaching methods, respondents praised peer-oriented learning and rated “teacher lecture” the least engaging.

The recommendations that followed these findings sound entirely sensible. The curriculum and teaching styles must change, researchers say. We need energetic instructors to present pertinent material in lively ways. Teachers should draw more assignments from real-world situations and create projects that are collaborative by nature, or culturally relevant (for example, by providing an Afro-centric curriculum to African-American students). If students recognize direct connections between schoolwork and their personal lives, including their future employment, academic engagement will rise, and they’ll stay in school and proceed to college and the workplace ready to thrive.

Let’s assume that these adjustments work, that the curriculum is relevant, the exercises engaging, the teacher inspiring, and that the students prosper through 12th grade and head to college. What happens then?

Likely, they’ll end up in a situation that is the opposite of what they experienced in high school. Usually, when students start college, they have to take freshman composition, a course universally dreaded by 18-year-olds. Few of them enjoy grammar exercises or paragraph development or the revision process. And chances are they don’t easily relate to the readings. (I teach freshman comp, so trust me, it’s hard to find any academic material students are eager to write about.) Many also have to take a math or another quantitative-skills course—subject matter irrelevant to students interested in the arts and humanities. Often, too, they face a U.S. history and civics requirement covering events and texts 200 years old and thoroughly alien to their job ambitions and leisure activities. And these aren’t the only tedious courses. In addition, most of them take lecture classes, in which the teacher is often talking from a stage to 300 students—their least-favored format. Sadly, all too often, students respond to these conditions in college just as they did in high school—drifting away and submitting shabby work.

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The on-time graduation rate at four-year colleges is currently only 59 percent and at two-year colleges a troubling 31 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. A 2009 study by Public Agenda found that 45 percent of recent college dropouts listed boredom as a “major” or “minor” reason they left, while 43 percent cited “I had to take too many classes that I didn’t think were useful.”

Their testimony adds an additional dimension to college readiness: the soft skills, not the academic preparation, required to complete the work even if the teacher is a drone, the materials dull, and the assignments solitary. This disposition is necessary for students to earn a college degree. Typically, except for vocational programs, students cannot plunge into a major or specialty until they’ve met general education requirements, most of which are unrelated to their academic preferences. Success translates into the ability to slog through them. If they cannot tie their coursework to their ambitions, it shouldn’t matter. If the people in the readings have a different skin color and lived at a different time and place, it shouldn’t matter.

This raises a disturbing concern about the relevance of student engagement at the high school level. In adjusting curriculum and pedagogy to student interest, educators may raise certain secondary school results but, ironically, stunt students in preparation for the next level of their education. In telling them, “You think the material is pointless and musty, but we’ll find ways to stimulate you,” high school educators fail to teach them the essential skill of exerting oneself even when bored, even when the material has no direct bearing upon one’s future.

Perhaps they believe that if revised curricula can engage high school juniors, they will build enough momentum to reach college with the pluck to keep focused in spite of their ennui. I presume the opposite. Students will have learned a different lesson when they go to college: If they’re not interested in a course, there’s something wrong with it, and they needn’t bother.

If educators wish to keep students in high school and in college, they must plant a better attitude in the former, while recognizing the intransigence of the curriculum in the latter. Boredom is not always something to be avoided. It is to be accepted and worked through.

A version of this article appeared in the August 07, 2013 edition of Education Week as Boredom’s Paradox


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