Tuesday, March 24, 2009

1.*: Boredom in the lecture theatre: What can be done?

An article in the latest British Educational Research Journal investigates boredom from the perspective of 21st Century tertiary students (in the UK). Mann, S., & Robinson, A (2009). Boredom in the lecture theatre: an investigation into the contributors, moderators and outcomes of boredom amongst university students. British Educational Research Journal 35(2), 243-258.

Boredom "stems from a situation where none of the possible things that a person can realistically do appeal to the person in question" (p.243). I know how that feels, having attended (and, well, also missed) multiple lectures during my undergraduate years. I admit that I did not mourn the lack of lectures during my PG studies through distance education! Naturally, boredom leads to alternative behaviour rather than a vegetative state. Students playing cell-phone games, doodling and focussing on other thoughts (daydreaming!) are trying to escape boredom in ways not immediately useful to the subject at hand. Boredom has longer-lasting effects as well; after a boring day of lectures, many of Mann & Robinson's respondents would watch TV, eat chocolate, sleep... as in the photo, they were far from energised by the experience.

Mann & Robinson's study has three main findings I would like to emphasise.

Firstly, there are individuals pre-disposed to boredom; there are those who simply to not find thinking or "increasing their understanding of events around them" as stimulating (p.244). It is important to start with this finding, as it clearly suggests that 'let's not do lectures anymore' is a naive response. There are some who will not engage regardless of the educaitonal tool used. There is a need to separate the tool from the technique. Lecturing can be done exceptionally well (I'm sure you can think of examples), so it has potential as a tool.

Secondly: the problem of PowerPoint. Yes, the problem. Whether or not it was somehow responsible for the destruction of the Columbia in 2003, it is certainly responsible for enabling content overload, unimaginative displays of text, and gaudy and distracting transitional effects. Rather than being used to support an engaging narrative or presentation, PowerPoint frequently becomes the focus of lecture preparation. This naturally places the emphasis on information rather than thinking... and information is boring. Copying PowerPoint slides is boring - but providing print-outs of them helps to ease the pain!

Third, the red-herring of 'hands-on'. Students found labs and computer sessions to be the most boring. 'Controlled exercises' are not stimulating for students. Discovery is better.

There are several hints within the article as to what makes learning in general more engaging. A focus on deep learning strategies, for example - and this can be expressed through lectures. A focus on discovery - which, again, can be built into carefully constructed lectures. De-emphasising the content (online lecture notes are perceived as boring) - again, this can be done through the lecture format. The best lectures I have attended are those based on narrative, carefully constructed stories with a twist that make the ideas - not the content - come to life. Effective lectures seek to bring about an 'aha' in the student, moreso than an assurance that all relevant content has been covered. While technology can be used to leverage effective teaching, it can also amplify inneffective teaching. PowerPoint can't save lectures... only careful thought and the creative, passionate and dedicated application of energy can. Effective lecturing is a craft, a craft that needs to be rediscovered rather than dismissed.

Image: 2007_088_01 by chuckp: See more of chuckp's photos, or visit his profile.


Mark said...

Seems like a big hole here-- What about the quality of the delivery of the lecture? Engaging lecturers can be fascinating to listen to. They can make boring topics interesting and interesting topics fascinating. The power of delivery is critical and ignoring it here seems like an error of omission that is trying to take the actual teacher out of the equation.

Nichthus said...

"...trying to take the actual teacher out of the equation" not at all. I agree with your point, and took the 'quality of delivery' for granted. It is, indeed, 'an error of omission', though I had tried to capture this implicitly in stating "only careful thought and the creative, passionate and dedicated application of energy can. Effective lecturing is a craft, a craft that needs to be rediscovered rather than dismissed."