My most vivid memory of studying history as an undergraduate is from a course I took on the Renaissance. It’s a great topic, full of all the drama and passion that is human experience: wacky plague cures, the rise of the Medici with all their mischief, the invention of the printing press, the reign of Elizabeth I, and the emergence of great artists and writers. It seems impossible that anyone could make such as era dull—and yet, I remember almost nothing about the content of the professor’s lectures, the content of the reading, or anything I wrote for that course.
However, I do remember how I entertained myself during class: I kept a daily list of the items of clothing worn by the professor. There was no rhyme or reason to his sartorial choices. For example, one day I wrote this in the margin of my notebook page:”brown plaid pants, blue double-breasted jacket with gold buttons, yellow shirt, green paisley tie.”
Just looking at the list, it seems like the professor’s wardrobe could have easily allowed him to fit in with the crowd emerging from a clown car. But no matter what he wore, he always looked as pulled together and debonair as James Bond ready to go all-in at Casino Royale. He sounded that way, too: perfect elocution, a grand storytelling manner, and just the right sense of humor. All in all, an excellent professor who knew his material, maintained the right classroom balance, and selected appropriate readings. I had great respect for him.
Still: I was bored out of my mind.
There was no reason for it: it was a subject I loved, with a great professor. But the time dragged, my mind wandered, and I ended up skipping a lot of classes. I did not do as well in the course as I should have.
I suspect that many students also suffer from classroom ennui. Sometimes the reason why is clear: a particular professor may not be the most electrifying speaker, the material is poorly covered or confusing, or the reading is pedestrian. But sometimes classroom boredom is just due to a bad mix of student and subject. You’re not interested in the topic, no matter how many cartwheels the professor turns to get your attention.
You know what? That’s OK. You’re not doing anything wrong if you’re not fascinated by what’s going on in class. However, you may fall into the trap of allowing boredom to take over to the extent that you are unable to get anything of value from the class. That’s why it’s important to fight classroom boredom and make sure you get the most possible benefit from a course, even if you hate it, don’t think you should have to deal with it, or suspect that it may slowly drain you of your will to live.
Mercy Chang, a student at Carnegie Mellon University, included some snarky suggestions about how to combat classroom boredom in an article in the school’s student newspaper, including “Count how many times the professor uses uh, umm, or like during an entire lecture” and “Write a play about an angry lobster, a happy penguin, and an evil genius.” That’s funny — but not helpful. Students today spend too much money to not benefit as much as possible from their courses. The following suggestions are more productive and can not only help you get through the course, but also facilitate learning:
- Be engaged: Passivity is the constant enabler of boredom, like the bad friend who sabotages your diet by holding up chocolate cake and saying “a little bite won’t hurt you.” You know as well as I do that one bite leads to another, and before you know it you’re sprawled on the floor with a bloated stomach and frosting all over your face, succumbing to a diabetic coma. Avoid passivity by actively engaging in the class. One way to do this is to ask questions about the material. Make sure you understand all the terms the professor uses, and ask if you don’t understand the connections between different topics.
- Take notes: These days, I see more students simply listening and not taking notes than ever before. Part of this may be that note-taking is just not taught in K-12 education — at least, that’s what my students tell me. But classroom note-taking is one way to stay engaged with the material and reinforce your understanding of it. Check out Dartmouth College’s guide on how to take effective lecture notes to brush up on your skills. An additional benefit is that you’ll probably see an increase in your grades as a result of effective note-taking skills.
- Integrate textbook and lectures: Bring your textbook to class and look through it during class to figure out how the lecture material corresponds to your assigned reading. As I frequently explain to my students, professors do not simply regurgitate what’s in the assigned reading. We are subject matter experts, so we augment, enhance, and expand the text material, clarifying issues and drawing connections. During class, make notes on how the lecture material corresponds to the assigned reading. You can do this in your notebook or even in the margins of your textbook. This will keep you focused and deepen your critical thinking about the subject.
- Connect assignments to course content: Another in-class option is to perform a similar task to the one above by taking notes on how lecture or textbook content relates to a paper or project assignment. For example, if I discuss the Renaissance in my history courses, students can think about how the material I present can be used to interpret a document in an upcoming assignment.
- Take smaller classes: There’s no way to hide in a smaller class, and even fewer opportunities to disengage in an online course, where your participation is regularly logged and tracked. When you are expected to participate directly in the class, you will be more motivated to pay attention to the lecture content or comments of your colleagues. This will keep you focused.
All five of these activities will keep you from becoming mired in an abyss of boredom and passivity. There are many other ideas out there: for example, on Wikianswers, students wrote a collaborative list of ideas for using class time to prevent boredom. One participant wrote,
“If a class is really boring and you still want to learn, read ahead in the textbook and take some notes. Draw pictures in your notebook about what the teacher is saying, or make up a crossword puzzle or word search using the vocabulary words in the lesson. So long as you are sitting quietly in your place and appear to be paying attention, most teachers will ignore the fact that you’re not really ‘all there.’”
I can confirm that this is true: though I always know when students are disengaged, there are times when I let it slide as long as they are working on some aspect of the course material.
Finally, sometimes you just have to face the fact that it doesn’t matter if you don’t like the class, the professor, or the readings. Even if you are so bored you think you might actually collapse from atrophy, you just have to do it. It’s OK to be bored, but resolve to face reality and get on with it! You might be surprised at what you can accomplish through sheer will power alone.