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Boredom Busters

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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However, for many students in my classes, the struggle to comprehend a challenging text often results in disengagement, not increased effort. Academic reading can trigger an understandable defense mechanism in students; they can avoid the discomfort of some difficult tasks by calling the work “boring.”





The posting below looks at some interesting ways to help students read and understand difficult texts. It is by Jennifer Fletcher and is from Chapter 4 - Building Confidence, in the book, Fostering Habits of Mind in Today’s Students: A New Approach to Developmental Education, edited by Jennifer Fletcher, Adela Najarro, and Hetty Yelland.

Published by Stylus Publishing, LLC, 22883 Quicksilver Drive, Sterling, Virginia 20166-2102. Copyright © 2015 by Stylus Publishing, LLC. []All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: The Dissertation (Defense) Meeting


Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Boredom Busters

“The essence of boredom is to be found in the obsessive search for novelty. Satisfaction lies in mindful repetition, the discovery of endless richness in subtle variations on familiar themes.”

- George Leonard (83)

I have great faith in writers. And so I tend to trust what they have to say is important – that even if I’m at first bored or resistant as a reader, there is still valuable meaning to be had. Knowing firsthand the struggle of finding just the right word or phrase to express a thought, I also tend to believe that the writers I read have already labored extensively over their craft before their texts ever fall into my hands – and that their effort obligates me to work hard at making meaning, too.

However, for many students in my classes, the struggle to comprehend a challenging text often results in disengagement, not increased effort. Academic reading can trigger an understandable defense mechanism in students; they can avoid the discomfort of some difficult tasks by calling the work “boring.” This is a special kind of boredom. Unlike the boredom we associate with repetitive or simplistic tasks – think assembly line work here – academic boredom results from cognitive overload rather than lack of stimulation. The brain has too much to deal with, rather than too little, and so it shuts down, says, “Thank you, but I’ve already had my fill today,” and defends the student against further stress by allowing him or her to “tune out” for the class. Academic boredom, or what composition scholar Charles Bazerman calls pseudo-boredom, is thus a type of guard dog against feelings of confusion and insecurity.

I’ve seen this happen in my own classes more times than I like to admit. I distribute a reading to a class that I consider absolutely fascinating – say, an excerpt from Edward Said’s Orientalism or some passages from Thoreau’s Walden – and the students make a good-faith effort to dutifully read what I’ve assigned for about five minutes. Then it starts: the shifting, the sighs, the slumping, the cell phones. I know that what I’ve distributed is life-changing, electrifying material that should rivet my students’ attention to the page. They look like they’ve been in line at the DMV for days – exhausted, resigned … broken. This is not the face of engagement.

Yet I also know that this is boredom with a difference. Reading Walden is not the same as standing in line at the DMV, reading Orientalism is nothing like capping bottles in a factory (although students may at first experience similar reactions). As Bazerman explains, “Genuine boredom occurs when you are reading material you already know only too well.… Pseudo-boredom comes when you feel you just cannot be bothered to figure out what all the new information and ideas mean” (22-23). Scholars from The Boredom Research Group (real name) offer a more technical distinction: Whereas the academic boredom associated with overchallenging situations can produce complex feelings of anger, anxiety, hopelessness, and shame in some students, the boredom induced by underchallenging tasks simply results in low levels of enjoyment (Acee et al. 25). Students can thus mean many different things when they say, “I’m bored” (Acee et al. 26).

My job as an instructor is to alert my students to these situational differences in meaning. One of the ways I’ve tried to help my students distinguish between real boredom and “fake” (i.e., academic) boredom is through a metacognitive approach to academic reading that asks students to notice when they’re feeling tired, disengaged, confused, frustrated, and disinterested, and then to apply a “fix-up” strategy to deal with the source of boredom. In other words, I try to train students to develop their “radar” for situations that might trigger defensive boredom. The goal of this approach is improved self-awareness, persistence, and personal responsibility.

We begin by completing an anticipation guide, or survey, that asks students to agree to disagree with various statements related to academic reading and boredom (see the appendix at the end of this lesson exemplar). For example, “It’s not fun to do something until you’re good at it” or “The best way to handle confusion is to just keep reading.” I usually follow this with a whole-class discussion and freewrite on the most divisive statements. Statements on how to handle distractions tend to draw the biggest reactions (“Ignore them!”; “Be disciplined!”; “Take a break!”). Because I’m asking my students to consider an attitude change – somewhat of a risky and presumptuous venture – I ensure that they have sufficient time and support to explore their feelings. Next, we discuss the special features of academic reading that can induce pseudo-boredom – such as assumed background knowledge, dense information, and academic English (Schleppegrell 16-17) – and compare academic texts to materials they might read for pleasure. The important point for students to understand is that academic boredom is a response to tasks that feel too hard, not too easy.

I then share with them the following “Top 10 List of Things Students Really Mean When They Say, ‘I’m Bored’”:

10. I don’t want to work this hard.

9. I’m confused.

8. I don’t have a purpose for reading.

7. I’ve never done this before.

6. I don’t have any questions I want answered.

5. I’m tired or hungry.

4. I’m preoccupied with something else.

3. I don’t feel like I’m very good at this.

2. I don’t see the connections between this activity and future learning or work.

1. I have another agenda.

Although this list is mostly a conversation starter based on what I think students mean by “boring,” the general idea of multiple meanings of boredom is research based (Acee et al., 2011; Pekrun et al., 2010). To introduce the idea that students have some control over their responses to texts, I ask them to talk with a partner about one counterstrategy they could use for one of these causes of “boredom.” For example, pairs might brainstorm ways to generate questions or make predictions for number six or might discuss sources of support and clarification for number two. After participating in this activity, one student wrote, “It’s almost as if my mind wants to distract me.” Some of her “boredom busters” included stretching for 10 minutes, drinking a full glass of water, or even swimming laps when stressed or preoccupied.

We then discuss strategies for making difficult reading assignments active and engaging. In particular, we focus on self-monitoring and “fix-up” strategies to improve students’ comprehension while also reflecting on how, where, and when they read can affect what they understand. I ask students to generate their own list of “What Good Readers Do.” We then match their responses to the research findings using the following behaviors of effective readers as identified by Nell K. Duke and P. David Pearson:

- Good readers are active readers.

- Good readers have clear goals in mind for their reading.

- Good readers typically look over the text before they read.

- Good readers read selectively, deciding what to read carefully, what to read quickly, what not to read, what to reread, and so on.

- Good readers monitor their understanding of the text, making adjustments in their reading as necessary.

- Good readers read different kinds of text differently. (107)

Although the first three items on this list are familiar to many students (and often match the students’ responses), the last three tend to elicit some surprise. “What do you mean we can read selectively?” students will ask. “Don’t we have to complete the assignment?” This gives us a great chance to talk about how having clear goals – one of the best boredom busters – allows readers to make adjustments and read different kinds of texts differently because they know what they’re supposed to be getting out of the experience and when the job is done.

Finally, we try the strategies in practice. Now is a good time for me to trot out Walden and Orientalism again to see if the strategies and increased awareness of defensive boredom make a difference. First, I distribute water and trail mix to combat pseudo-boredom attributable to fatigue or hunger. Second, I ask students to do the following while they read: (a) identify passages in the text that cause confusion; (b) keep your place with a pencil or note card; and (C) stop reading when you become confused and use one of the following fix-up strategies: [Note 1]

- Survey the text again.

- Reread.

- Write about your confusion/questions.

- Talk to a friend and/or your teacher.

- Take a walk or eat a snack.

- Check your predictions.

- Read the introduction or preface to find a purpose for reading.

A word of caution: I’ve learned that increased awareness of effective reading strategies does not lead to improved practice. Knowing, in other words, is not the same as doing. And to be fair, I am often not the best teacher I know how to be. I do believe, however, that this kind of awareness can put a voice in a reader’s head that speaks against complacency.

We conclude the lesson by reflecting on the difference that active reading can make in our experience of difficult texts. When Thoreau describes reading as “a noble intellectual exercise” that requires us to “stand on tip-toe” and “devote our most alert and wakeful hours to” (94), I want my students to know exactly what he means. These activities help students see that meaning-making is not shouldered by writers alone; readers, too, have to work hard to create tip-toe standing literacy experiences, especially with academic texts. As Bazerman says, “The cure for real boredom is to find a more advanced book on the subject; the only cure for pseudo-boredom is to become fully and personally involved in the book already in front of you” (23).

Quick Start Guide

1. Explain to your students the differences between pseudo-boredom (a response to tasks that feel too hard) and genuine boredom (a response to tasks that are too easy).

2. Ask students to complete the “Boredom Busters” Anticipation/Reaction Guide.

3. Facilitate a class discussion on the “Top 10 List of Things Students Really Mean When They Say, ‘I’m Bored’.”


4. Identify “fix-up” strategies for each cause of pseudo-boredom.

5. Instruct students to read a challenging academic text independently. Ask students to note how their use of active reading strategies and increased awareness of defensive boredom make a difference in their reading experience.


1. See Chris Tovani’s I Read It, but I Don’t Get It: Comprehension Strategies for Adolescent Readers for excellent suggestions for fix-up strategies.

Works Cited

Acee, Taylor Ward., et al. “Academic Boredom in Under- and Over-Challenging Situations.” Contemporary Educational Psychology. 35.1 (2011): 17-27. Print.

Bazerman, Charles. The Informed Writer: Using Sources in the Disciplines, 5th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1995. Print.

Duke, Nell K., and P. David Pearson. “Effective Practices for Developing Reading Comprehension.” Journal of Education 189.1-2 (2008): 107-213. Print.

Leonard, George. Mastery: The Key to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment. New York: Penguin Books, 1992. Print.

Pekrun, Reinhard, et al. “Boredom in Achievement Settings: Exploring Control-Value Antecedents and Performance Outcomes of a Neglected Emotion.” Journal of Educational Psychology 102.3 (2010): 531-549. Print.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 1979. Print.

Schleppegrell, Mary J. The Language of Schooling: A Functional Linguistics Perspective. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004. Print.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. 1854. New York: The Modern Library, 1937. Print.

Tovani, Chris. I Read It, but I Don’t Get It: Comprehension Strategies for Adolescent Readers. Portland: Stenhouse, 2000. Print.

Appendix 4.A: “Boredom Busters” Anticipation/Reaction Guide

Directions: Read each statement. Then, in the first space, write a plus sign if you agree with the statement, a minus sign if you disagree, or a question mark if you are unsure about your opinion. For many statements there are no right answers. At the end of the term, you can indicate your reactions in the second space.

Agree = + Disagree = - Don’t know = ?

1. _____ _____ The best way to handle confusion is to just keep reading.

2. _____ _____ It’s best to completely ignore personal problems when studying.

3. _____ _____ Having surgery is less stressful than taking essay tests.

4. _____ _____ Students who are strong in math are usually poor writers.

5. _____ _____ Great writers are born, not made.

6. _____ _____ It’s easier to write academic essays if you warm up by reading.

7. _____ _____ I do my best work late at night.

8. _____ _____ I do my best work early in the morning.

9. _____ _____ I often feel sloppy when I try to read academic texts.

10. _____ _____ Reading textbooks is boring.

11. _____ _____ I enjoy writing short stories or autobiographical incidents.

12. _____ _____ Reading literature is boring.

13. _____ _____ It is difficult for me to find time for pleasure reading.

14. _____ _____ Most careers require critical reading and writing skills.

15. _____ _____ Daily writing produces better results than “binge” writing.

16. _____ _____ I consider myself a skilled and competent writer.

17. _____ _____ I find it hard to concentrate when I write essays at home.

18. _____ _____ It’s not fun to do something until you’re good at it.

19. _____ _____ I enjoy writing poetry or song lyrics.

20. _____ _____ Writing essays takes too much time.