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How Bored Are Your Students?


An Indiana University study released last week (sorry for the late notice) suggests that 2 of every 3 high school students are bored in at least one class every day, and 17 percent say they suffer daily boredom in every class.

The top two reasons they cite for their boredom are they do not find the material they are studying interesting or they feel it isn't relevant to their lives.

What's going on here? Are these kids a bunch of lazy, disengaged whiners? Or do schools need to to a better job making learning interesting and relevant?


Even if you gave a kid a video game, it's no good if the game stinks. The biggest problem is making something as boring as grammar (and I am an English teacher and a grammarian, so yes it is boring) hip? In writing class, you have to write to get better; there's no movie for that. I have given prompts telling them to write on their favorite thing, anything, and they still don't sometimes. Some kids need to realize that not everything is fun. It's not fun for me to write out lesson plans with objectives, copy pages, and plan weeks ahead of time, but I have to do it.

Students are bored because the material they're forced to study is of no consequence to anybody - not even their teachers.

My mother was an educator for many years. She was fond of saying (in less-than-PC language) that "only stupid people are bored". The problem today is that there are far more interests competing for our students' attention than ever before. The prevalence of entertainment in today's world often makes it hard for the classroom to compete; most of us are not born entertainers.

At the same time, brain research confirms that teenagers' capacity for good judgment is in flux. It becomes imperative, therefore, that we be sensitive as to how we present material we know our students will need to be exposed to, and, at the same time, work to help them make better choices. That being said, the acquisition of knowledge will not always be a fun-filled experience for everyone. Sometimes you just have to tough it out. Still, there is a fine line between rigor-where-necessary and rigor as a substitute for poor teaching. The more the teacher is enthusiastic for her/his subject, the greater the likelihood the student will become engaged.

It is also advisable to remember that variety is the spice of life. Does your class follow the same routine every day? Is it possible to rearrange the sequence of what you do to make the experience seem more varied? You'd be surprised at how seemingly minor changes can perk up a class. You can even introduce "planned" spontaneity, such as deciding to "dispense with" the usual lecture to have an open discussion, perhaps even on a topic not related to your curriculum but one where you ask your students' opinion of an issue of concern to them. Once they've had a chance to voice their opinions, see if there is a hook there that can draw them back to your lesson, or, just gently bring the discussion to a conclusion; I guarantee the students will be more willing to get back to work.

The other thing we have to remember is that some students will need more to get involved than others. Let's not forget that our role is to be both coach and cheerleader-- urging our students to sweat for ever greater achievement without forgetting to compliment them for the progress they are making, something, again, that will differ for each student.

Finally, what does "I'm bored" really mean? Is it a cover for "I don't understand" (at least not the way you've just explained it)? Is it an attempt to get attention? Is it an attempt to get your goat? The better we know our students and the more varied our approaches, the more successful we will be, and the less "bored" they will be.

The most difficult thing these days is finding a way to engage all your learners in a manner they will remember content. I've included numerous different types of technology in my classroom and found some of the simplest things have gotten their attention. I've had them write songs and produce them to the best of their ability and I've never had as many students pick up a book or get on the web to research topics to put in their songs. They've also created Photostories over people they have researched, which gives them more control over what they are learning and what they find most interesting. They take a lot of pride in thier work when they know it has a high probability of being posted on the web. If you want to see what some of my students have done you can go to www.tonywestphal.com under podcasts and photostories to see and hear their work.

I was always highly critical of teachers and professors for not making classes and assignments more engaging. Then, when I became a teacher, I became highly critical of students for complaining and not working hard enough.

I think we need to realize that there's a disconnect in perception between kids and adults and figure out a way to solve the problem rather than blaming the other party. Yes, it's not possible to make everything intensely interesting, but that doesn't mean that there's not a serious problem. It's really difficult to engage students (particularly when you were only exposed to boring teaching as a student), but I think we should make an honest effort to do it.

As a student, like the previous correspondent, I was more frequently bored than not up to Year 9 - but didn't realise that I had at least part of a solution if I wanted to work ahead, or finish what was set and do something else. Lock step classes are at least partly responsible, I feel, for the boredom that bright students experience when they are held back to the pace of the slowest person in teh class. As a teacher, I always tried to provide alternatives for thsoe I knew would finish first. What I was unable to do was to motivate students who really did not want to learn at all. I taught elective subjects (French and German), that sometimes contained students who hadn't selected these subjects but were unable to do their first choice. What can you do as a teacher? I still don't know.

What motivates students? An informal survey in my senior English classes showed that over half of my students work jobs after shcool or on the weekends. They work because they want money to buy things -- clothes, shoes, and electronic toys are high on the list.

It might seem that what motivates students are: 1) immediate rewards and 2) rewards that students see as being valuable.

In other words, a student that sees that they can earn something immediately for their efforts makes for a higher motivated student, almost regardless of the "boring" factor. So teachers must be marketers.

Let's take vocabulary study. Folks of my generation didn't question the teacher when we were assigned vocabulary cards. In the past, I assigned students 5 points to write cards. Students lost points. However, if the assignment is extra credit, then more students might be willing to write the cards. However, if the process is too onerous, then it's not worthwhile.

So back to the drawing board. Out of 20 words in the vocabulary book, which is part of the school's core requirements, I pick out the five or six that students should be able to use in their writing, five or six that they should be able to recognize in their reading, and the rest is extra and above. The job is doable.

Yet, there is the slacker factor. Students will copy homework assignments without a lot of thought. I've seen them do that with math homework in my classroom just before I confiscate the items.

So teachers must think of a homework assignment that provides not only immediate reward for their effort, make it doable, but also think of ways to design it so the slacker factor doesn't kick in.

A great deal of teaching is marketing. Who is your target audience? What motivates them? How do you get your message across? How do you convince them to "buy your product"?

How did I learn this? Not a lot of students did the extra credit vocabulary homework unless the credit was deemed enough and it was seen as valuable. I found when I raised the extra credit points to 10, gave them the words they'd need to know the part of speech, definition, context and be able to use in a sentence, AND told them that ten points could mean the difference in passing and failing a vocabulary quiz, they began to see relevance. More students began to do the homework--cleverly designed to guide them to individual thought--and began to pass the quiz, not so much based on the homework but because they were learning the targeted vocabulary.

Sometimes you can lead a horse to water, but you have to let them know that the water will satisfy their thirst.

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