Carnegie Education

Bored at university? Surely not!

Students really do get bored at university. The immediate and longer term effects of academic boredom can be problematic, adversely affecting student engagement and performance in sometimes different and unanticipated ways.

Education lecture

Difficult though it may be to imagine, undergraduate students really do get bored at university. Despite previous success at school or at work, university does not always seem to provide the personal, social or intellectual stimulation that many individuals need to keep them actively involved.  The everyday signs of academic boredom, though far from conclusive on their own, include drowsiness and yawning in class, heads resting in hands, bodies slouched in seats, vacant stares, repeated finger or foot tapping and constantly having eyes on the clock.  Until relatively recently, however, and despite its acknowledgement as a largely negative and deactivating achievement-related emotion, the formal study of academic boredom was a largely neglected and underdeveloped field.  Thanks to research published by academics working mainly in the United States, Germany and Canada, this is changing at a rapid pace.

In the UK, where the study of academic boredom is only now beginning to receive the attention it perhaps deserves, recent research suggests that undergraduates tend to get bored most frequently during traditional lectures. For those students more prone to academic boredom than others, a perceived excess and inappropriate use of PowerPoint, the personal attributes and qualities of the lecturer, relevance, coherency and pace, a lack of student-tutor interaction, poor student behaviour and the lecture-theatre environment itself have all been cited as responsible:

‘Sometimes when lecturers have used a lot of PowerPoints and not really interacted with everyone in the lecture theatre it becomes a bit monotonous … I don’t like it when people turn the lights off … that makes me more sleepy … The speed of the content that’s been covered in the lecture, especially if it’s new … I get completely muddled … and the rest of the lecture becomes a blur … you’re catching up … not concentrating, completely lost and panicking a bit … I generally either doodle or go on social media … I feel frustrated at myself because I feel like I should be concentrating but then I also feel like “Why am I here?” … It feels a bit pointless.’

Interestingly, and despite their value as a means of ‘escape’, the disadvantages of digital distractions associated with academic boredom in class, including turning to social media, mobile phone use and the Internet, are also beginning to emerge. Interestingly, academic boredom has also been found to occur while studying, during exam revision and during the completion of written assignments for the purposes of assessment. With those students more prone to academic boredom than others also appearing less intrinsically motivated and lacking a sense of purpose, more likely to describe their attendance at university as good rather than excellent, managing their time and deploying their resources less effectively and spending less time in self-study over the course of a week, this is a far from trivial phenomenon. In addition, boredom proneness and final year degree mark often correlate negatively as anticipated with those participants more prone to academic boredom and less engaged than others also found to graduate with lower class degree awards.  Mindful of their reciprocal and mutually reinforcing relationships, academic boredom is a positive predictor of surface approaches to learning, a negative predictor of organised effort and a negative predictor of the perceived course experience.  The consequences of academic boredom are as far reaching as the suggestions for mitigation.

Further Reading

  • Sharp, J.G, Sharp, J.C. and Young, E. (forthcoming) Academic boredom, engagement and the achievement of undergraduate students at university: A review and synthesis of relevant literature. Research Papers in Education.  DOI: 10.1080/02671522.2018.1536891.
  • Sharp, J.G., Hemmings, B., Kay, R. and Atkin, C. (2018) Academic boredom, the approaches to learning and final-year degree outcomes of undergraduate students. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 42(8), 1055-1077. DOI 10.1080/0309877X.2017.1349883.

Professor John Sharp

John Sharp is a former Professor of Education in the Carnegie School of Education at Leeds Beckett University. John also led all research activity associated with education for the Research Excellence Framework (Unit 25) up until 2019.

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