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Hey Stanford, don’t let boredom win

It is considered the natural order of things that we grow older and replace picture books with textbooks; we listen to the drone of teachers rather than watch Bill Nye the Science Guy videos; and we begin to accept boredom as an inextricable part of getting an education. And finally, by the time we are in college, we are expected to have enough self-discipline and intellectual fortitude to sit up straight in a lecture hall for two hours and listen while the professor elaborates on PowerPoint slides filled to the brim with a wall of text.

Research shows that the trend I just described is not good for students. A few years ago, team of Columbia psychologists published their findings on the detrimental effect of boredom on learning in a paper titled, “Better to be frustrated than bored.” When they began their experiment, they expected frustration more than confusion or boredom to be tied closest with poor learning. They found, however, that boredom, rather than frustration or confusion, is the problem emotion by a long shot. Bored students gave up, gamed the system and didn’t absorb the material.

For many of you reading, these findings make intuitive sense. You don’t need psychologists from Columbia to tell you that boredom is the enemy of learning. If you’re at Stanford , you probably experience this truism every week in at least one lecture.

New students arriving at Stanford are often surprised that a faculty consisting of 21 Nobel laureates, 27 MacArthur Fellows, 20 National Medal of Science recipients and 158 National Academy of Sciences members could deliver such boring lectures.

Unfortunately, students learn quickly that at Stanford you’ll be taught by MacArthur geniuses, but there’s no guarantee you won’t be bored out of your mind while it happens.

Stanford should learn a lesson from that research out of Columbia and declare a war on classroom boredom. It is just as much a student’s responsibility to pay attention as it is Stanford’s responsibility to ensure that professors are engaging in the classroom.

One obvious, but usually botched, approach is to make better slideshows—ones with pictures, news articles, and videos to break up walls of text about theory. Another approach is to create incentives for paying attention. To illustrate one example, imagine a teacher unknowingly projecting the homework answers onto the board and all the students suddenly perking up to write down the answers. Professors can capture this same type of incentive-based attention by working out some homework problems in lecture.

Introductory classes are a great place to start implementing these changes. These classes are often the first exposure to a subject for students — an experience that can make or break a student’s decision to pursue a given major.

Stanford should focus on filling introductory classes with the most talented and engaging teachers it can find. Scrap the current premium on professors’ achievements in favor of appointing professors with liveliness and energy, because let’s face it: You don’t need an impressive resume to be a great teacher and public speaker.

It’s also important that Stanford identifies which Stanford professors are boring. At the end of each quarter Stanford gets the opportunity to do just that when students fill out student course evaluations. These evaluations need to be improved in two ways.

Firstly, every department should collect mid-quarter evaluations in addition to end-of-quarter evaluations, because mid-quarter evaluations, unlike end-of-quarter evaluations, provide the opportunity for students to give feedback while they are still taking the class. If professors act on this feedback during the quarter, students can actually see their feedback being put to good use. Secondly, more survey questions should be more deliberately aimed at understanding how students are feeling during lecture. The current survey questions under the headings “Instructor’s Ability to Engage and Challenge Students” and “Instructor’s Interaction with Students” are inadequate at finding out whether the professor is a boring teacher. The closest thing we get is a question about whether the professor “inspires student interest,” but this question, which is the most significant indicator for whether students are paying attention and learning, gets lost in the mix. Such a question should instead be a priority.

For a research university of Stanford’s caliber, it’s easy to stock the faculty with award-winning researchers. It’s easy to demand that professors publish papers and get grant funding. It’s much harder to make student engagement with lectures a top priority, but this is what Stanford must do in order to become the world-class educational institution it is reputed to be. Many Stanford departments are already leaders in this front. To the departments that need to catch up: Don’t let boredom win.

Contact Cory Herro at cherro ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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